16 Jan

A hunger runs through Kitzhaber’s fourth inauguration

SALEM — Right after the joke he made about Oregon playing Ohio State for the national championship in a few hours – very similar to the joke he made about Oregon playing Auburn for the national championship that night in 2011; it seems the way for Oregon to get to the national championship game, if not win it, is to inaugurate John Kitzhaber – and right before his memories of his first day as a legislator, the phrase came bursting out, as though it couldn’t wait for him to get to his printed text:

“Childhood hunger.”

The issue appeared several times in John Kitzhaber’s fourth inaugural address itself, nosing its way through the paragraphs the way it keeps showing up in Department of Agriculture surveys. It surfaced in his speech to the Oregon Leadership Summit last week, in the budget he just sent to the Legislature, and on city streets and especially rural hillsides around the state.

Anybody inaugurated as governor for the fourth time – and it’s a pretty exclusive group – is entitled to look back, and Kitzhaber did: to his father’s service in World War II, to his first leadership appearance as Senate president, and especially to the Robert Kennedy campaign for president in 1968: “From the moment he died in Los Angeles, I wanted to commit myself to public service.”

And as Kitzhaber recalled, Robert Kennedy’s race always brings up one searing vision: “It was a campaign about unrepresented farm workers in California; about poverty and hunger and children starving to death in the Mississippi Delta and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.”

Which brought up a question about 21st century Oregon: “Why are one in five Oregon children still living in poverty? Why do over 30 percent of Oregon children face food insecurity on a daily basis?”

In fact, the governor noted, it was hard even to talk about economic recovery, “because I am certain that this term does not have much meaning for hundreds of thousands of people in our state.”

Including a lot of them too young to vote.

The theme seemed to resonate through the state House chamber. House Speaker Tina Kotek, installed for a second term, talked about messages from a focus group of Oregon Food Bank clients, and called for a time when “Oregonians will know that it’s become a little easier to make ends meet; to feed their children; to turn a big idea into a thriving business.”
To feed their children.

“Childhood hunger is the canary in the mine-shaft,” Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of Partnership for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said after the governor’s speech. “It’s a sign of the problems families have to meet their daily needs.”
In Oregon, as surveys from the food bank alliance Feeding America keep finding, it’s a very loud canary. It’s been particularly loud in rural areas such as Crook County – part of why its representative, Minority Leader Mike McLane, has shown an interest in hunger and poverty praised by Kotek in her remarks Monday.

Whitney-Wise pointed to several specific measures facing the Legislature, including one that would buy out the reduced-price school lunch, extending free lunch to kids from families that may not be on the edge, but are close enough to feel the breeze. Jon Stubenvoll of the Oregon Food Bank estimates the change will open access to about 30,000 more kids, and the $3 million to pay for it is in the governor’s budget.

Stubenvoll is concerned about keeping what we have: “SNAP (food stamps) is the nation’s #1 defense against hunger. We suspect there will be a push to limit Oregon’s participation,” such as a change in the process or the documentation required. Oregon, through active outreach, has a high proportion of its eligible population drawing food stamps, which some people think is a problem rather than an achievement.

The governor’s budget, Whitney-Wise notes, includes several other efforts to address the gap – and the hunger – walling off a rising number of Oregonians. She cites some additional money for emergency housing, and for extending the transitional time for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families help.

“I think he’s focusing on some things,” she says, “to make a real difference for the state of Oregon.”

This time, in his fourth inaugural address, Kitzhaber didn’t talk about the environment, traditionally an issue of high concern for him. This time, he talked about “the increasingly desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Oregonians.”

It’s a vital subject.

Maybe we should all get something to eat and discuss it.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 1/14/15.