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Oregon's hungry need our help

Our opinion

As Portlanders this week celebrate a holiday dedicated to gratitude and a bit of gluttony, their good spirits must be tempered by the knowledge that many of their neighbors are not so fortunate.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report on hunger in America - and the statistics show that Oregon in 2009 had one of the highest percentages in the country of people experiencing very low security about where they will find their next meal.

The number of households in Oregon that fell into this category exceeded 100,000 - or an estimated 6.6 percent of the total in the state. Many of those homes included children, bringing Oregon's entire population of 'very food insecure' people to 220,000 in 2009. And that was only the hungriest of the hungry - a group of people who actually had to skip meals or not eat for a whole day because they lacked food.

By a broader measure, the number of people who experience some insecurity about food was and is even greater in this state: more than half a million. All of these numbers represent a marked increase in Oregon's hunger from pre-recession levels.

It could have been even worse

As alarming as these statistics are, the degree of hunger in Oregon has actually been mitigated in these past two years by additional food and nutrition funding that the federal government provided as part of its economic stimulus package. However, those resources are either drying up, as temporary programs come to an end, or they are declining back to the levels of funding in place prior to the stimulus plan.

As a result, Oregon and its citizens must now learn how to deal with this rise in hunger with less federal assistance.

The first line of attack against hunger must be direct intervention by generous individuals and businesses. The Oregon Food Bank and its network of partners distribute food boxes each month that help feed as many as 240,000 people. They need the help of people who can afford to donate food, money or time.

A longer-term remedy to hunger is an improved economy that can provide family wage jobs to people who were pushed into poverty and dependence by the recession. But while economic growth is an immediate and necessary priority, it's also imperative that our state and federal government representatives don't focus so exclusively on economic goals that they lose sight of the people who are without food today.

Protect those in need

Incoming Gov. John Kitzhaber has assembled transition teams charged with exploring various paths to an economic turnaround. At the same time, a divided Legislature prepares to convene in January to begin to address a state budget that starts out more than $3 billion in the red. Even during dire financial times, government is obligated to protect vulnerable people while also addressing competing priorities.

For Oregon's representatives in Congress, this means supporting a child nutrition law that's already been approved in the U.S. Senate. The funding for that bill may come somewhat at the expense of other nutrition programs, but local experts on hunger correctly argue that feeding children is of the most crucial importance.

Government programs are essential to keeping food in the pipeline for those presently in need. But that doesn't relieve citizens of their critical role - a role that goes well beyond lobbying their political leaders. The most immediately productive action anyone can take locally is to donate money and food and volunteer their time to help ensure that no one in this state has to go without the most basic necessities for life. As we can clearly see by the distressing results of the annual report on hunger in America, Oregonians struggling to feed themselves need help throughout the year, and not just during the holiday season.

Portland residents should challenge themselves to become part of the solution by contacting the Oregon Food Bank online at oregonfoodbank.org, or by phone at 503-282-0555.