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Demand for food bank resources remains high

by: KATIE WILSON, SPOTLIGHT PHOTO - Boy Scout Matthew Prochnow collects and weighs food donations gathered by local cub and boy scouts. The scouts brought the results of their food drive to the Columbia Pacific Food Bank in St. Helens on Dec. 1.When confronting the issue of hunger in Columbia County, the term “emergency food box” is somewhat misleading for what is an essential source of sustenance to many local families.

According to Columbia Pacific Food Bank Executive Director Tracie Smith, such supplies served 880 households and 2,365 individuals last year. Taking into account services for senior citizens, the CPFB emergency food pantry served a total of 28,633 people in the county.

“It’s hard for a person the first time they have to walk through that door, but it’s our goal to make people feel comfortable and not feel that sense of embarrassment,” Smith said. “And I don’t think it holds the same stigma today that it did 10 years ago, because so many people are in the same boat.”

People from all walks of life come through the food pantry’s doors: everyone from laid-off factory workers to once-successful realtors who now struggle to feed their children.

The emergency food boxes they receive can weigh 75 pounds on average. The size is determined by the number of people in the household. Boxes generally include some form of meat, pasta, rice, tomato products, soup, canned fruits and often frozen vegetables, Smith said. A trip to pick up a box includes access to a collection of fresh produce and loaves of store-donated bread.

Families that receive Social Security benefits or are recipients of public welfare programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women and Children (or WIC) automatically qualify for emergency food boxes. Households whose income put them within 180 percent of the poverty line are also entitled to emergency food boxes, which can last them anywhere from five to seven days, Smith added.

But the community pantry is hardly a fix for food insecurity in the area. Individuals or families are only permitted one visit to the food bank each month. The pantry is meant to serve as a supplement, ideally to programs like the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But, as Smith pointed out, the CPFB is above all a resource.

“I tell people, ‘If you even think you need a food box, come get one,’” Smith said. “Because then you have $60 more that you have to pay for gas, heat, rent, whatever. That’s what we’re here for. If it’s a one-time deal, great. If it’s once a month for a year, so be it.”

Meanwhile, partner agencies try to fill the gap.

The Scappoose Foursquare Church (33404 S.W. JP West Rd.) offers a weekly food pantry on Wednesdays from noon to 1 p.m., as well as directly after Sunday worship services.

The Community Meals program at First Lutheran Parish Hall in St. Helens (at the corner of 4th and Wyeth streets) serves free dinner on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 6 p.m. In the past few months, attendance at such meals has jumped from an average of 90 to about 120 diners each night.

Although her organization only saw a 6 percent increase in service demand from the community in 2011, Smith said this simply builds on a need that grows annually and has yet to decrease.

The system

CPFB is one of 21 regional member agencies within the Oregon Food Bank network.

From OFB, money and food commodities are allocated to regional food banks throughout the state based on a formula that includes population and unemployment rates in the area. But as Smith said, “We have a lot more unemployed in our communities than show in the books.”

As a result of this formula, however, Columbia County receives a mere 1.57 percent of the statewide allocation, approximately $290,000.

“That 1.57 percent is a very small amount of food in comparison to the amount of people we’re serving,” Smith said.

The CPFB has had to “get creative” with grant-seeking, but the nonprofit still managed to distribute 821,000 pounds of food throughout the county, Smith said.

For this year’s Hunger Factors Assessment study, OFB surveyed 4,599 emergency food recipients throughout Oregon and also in Cowlitz County, Wash., which houses Community House on Broadway, one of the most accessible homeless shelters for Columbia Couny residents.

Most recent data from the CPFB from 2010-2011 showed that 43 percent of that food was provided by government commodities through the United States Department of Agriculture, while 40 percent was donated, 13 percent was provided by OFB and 4 percent was purchased by CPFB.

Among the Columbia County recipients, 46.7 percent were from St. Helens, 18.3 percent were from Vernonia, 13.6 percent were from Clatskanie, 12.2 percent were from Scappoose and 9 percent were from Rainier.

For the senior population, CPFB reports it provided over 35,000 meals on-site at senior centers, and an additional 33,378 to housebound seniors through the Meals on Wheels program.

Smith studied intake forms to find out how many times most families accessed the emergency food pantry. She was surprised to find that, on average, Columbia County families and individuals accessed food resources about four times a year.

For more information on the Columbia Pacific Food Bank, visit cpfoodbank.org