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by: COURTESY OF TASTE OF THE NATION - A chef poses with a young Cooking Matters participant, part of Taste of the Nation.Every year, I recommend Taste of the Nation as one of your best opportunities to get an overview of Portland’s dining scene — and stuff yourself dizzy in the process. Many of Portland’s best restaurants participate in this smorgasbord of elegant little bites, which is coming up on Tuesday, April 29.

It’s a party where many different facets of Portland dining come together. This year’s participants range from modernists such as Aviary, Departure and Smallwares, to top Asian spots such as Bamboo Sushi, Biwa and Boke Bowl, to comfort-food kings including Laurelhurst Market, Lardo and the RingSide. And that’s just the food.

You could probably drink your money’s worth — not that you should — in samples from brewers, distillers and wineries. And it couldn’t be for a better cause. The proceeds go to organizations that are fighting childhood hunger in Oregon.

Of course, that’s the irony of it. With all the state’s agricultural bounty, and all its success as a hub for restaurants and food artisans, too many people in Oregon are struggling to get enough food. The USDA reports that about 13.6 percent of Oregonians suffer from food insecurity, which it defines as not having access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. That’s slightly below the national average of 14.7 percent.

But when it comes to childhood hunger, the numbers are abysmal. In 2011, the nonprofit Feeding America ranked Oregon as the state with the worst childhood hunger rates in the nation. Currently. the organization puts Oregon at No. 4, outranked by Washington D.C., New Mexico and Arizona.

“It is really surprising to people,” says Annie Kirschner, a spokesperson for Partners for a Hunger by: COURTESY OF TASTE OF THE NATION - A chef helps a young woman prepare food in the Cooking Matters portion of Taste of the Nation.Free Oregon, which is one of the beneficiaries of Taste of the Nation. “Especially in a state where we have so much bounty, such great food — it’s part of our culture.”

Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon focuses on awareness in two areas: public awareness of the problem of childhood food insecurity, and outreach to families who aren’t getting access to existing food resources.

For example, kids who receive free lunches or reduced price lunches at school may not be getting available school breakfasts. Or they may not know about or have transportation to lunches that are available in the summer through community groups and parks and recreation programs. Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon reports that more than half of the kids in Oregon are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches, for which they qualify based on their parents’ income.

by: COURTESY OF TASTE OF THE NATION - Taste of the Nation features local restaurants such as Lardo, Tuesday, April 29 at McMenamins Crystal Hotel and Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside.The school lunch programs often are used as an index for measuring economic instability.

“During the recession, you could see that number skyrocket,” Kirschner says. “About 10 years ago it was 43 percent. ... It’s gone up, but it hasn’t gone down yet.”

She also says that the past few years have seen a lot of families seeking help for the first time. One small crisis — an illness, a broken-down car — can be enough to tip the balance from barely getting by to needing help.

“The bigger picture is really working on economic stability. It’s a money issue,” Kirshcner says. “Food is the one flexible part in most people’s budget. ... Even before people get to the point of going without meals, there’s a lot of room to cut back there. People make those hard choices: Instead of buying the food that I know is healthy, that I want for myself and my kids, I’m going to buy the food I can afford.”

Funds from Taste of the Nation also support the Oregon Food Bank’s education program, Cooking Matters, which teaches people strategies for shopping and cooking within the budget of a family on food assistance. It’s a sad fact that less healthy food is generally cheaper, and that fast food often seems like the best option for saving money.

“That’s where I think the conversation is really interesting here in Oregon, in Portland, where people really do value local, sustainable, healthy, organic food,” Kirschner says. “It’s a luxury, really, and that’s what’s unjust about it, that good food is a luxury.”

Personally, I have a foot in both worlds. As a food writer, my subsidized meals include oysters and quail, Champagne cocktails and sushi, fine cheese and chocolates. But this past year has been a tough one, and I needed some help to get by. It was nothing compared with the troubles that some people face, but enough to serve as a reminder that hunger is never really that far away.

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