21 Sep

Latest USDA Oregon hunger numbers going in wrong direction

It turns out that while Portland was becoming the coolest city for food, not everybody was eating.

And while we’ve been advancing course by course, some of our tables were heading in the wrong direction.

The eagerly awaited annual U.S. Department of Agriculture hunger survey reports – the malnutrition version of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – came out this month. And just as in the college football rankings, Oregon is not where it should be.

At a time when Oregon was supposed to be gaining in its battle with hunger, the feds reported that their surveys from 2012 to 2014 found that Oregon’s food insecurity got worse at the third fastest rate in the country. From their survey, the three-year average of Oregonians reporting food insecurity – essentially, not always knowing where your next meal is coming from – rose from 13.6 percent to 16.1 percent, an increase of 2.5 percent – more than any state except Louisiana and Mississippi.

On the subject of hunger, that’s not company you want to be in.

And just when we thought we were doing well. It’s been years since we ranked as the hungriest state in the country, and our economy has been advancing.

“It’s upsetting but not shocking,” commented Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a hunger advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“The economy is advancing in very uneven way. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is strong, but wages aren’t going up. And inequality in Oregon is among the worst of the states.”

That could explain how we were prominent in both the Department of Agriculture’s food insecurity survey, and Bon Appetit magazine.

People who watch Oregon’s hunger numbers, and try to do something about them, have some other theories.
Oregon’s considerable progress against hunger, especially over the last decade, had a lot to do with active and successful outreach for the food stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Oregon has been among the most successful states in getting people who qualified for the federal program signed up for it. When the program was bolstered by the economic stimulus program in 2009, Oregon benefited.

And when the additional benefits were cut back in November 2013, Oregon took a disproportionate hit.

“That’s the best hypothesis we’ve got,” suggested Matt Newell-Ching, public affairs director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

There is, he notes, another problem particular to Oregon, and particularly the metropolitan area: Especially high housing costs, and rents rising a lot faster than wages. When you’re spending an ever-growing part of your income to keep a roof over your head, something has to get squeezed. That could be groceries.

Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate at the Oregon Food Bank, looks at the numbers a bit more hopefully. He wonders if the 2012-2014 results were particularly shaped by the numbers from 2012, when demand was still rising at the food bank, which has seen some improvement in the situation in the time soon.

Comparing us to where we were in 2008, of course, is another question.

“The type of jobs that were lost are different from the type of jobs that have returned,” points out Kleen. “People need more pay, in the form of wages they can live on.”

The numbers that came out this month broke down the overall hunger numbers by state, but not the other surveys. That might be giving us a break.

Among children under 18, the Department of Agriculture calculated 15.3 million living in households with food insecurity, with more than 21 percent of American children living in poverty. Considering that Oregon’s poverty and hunger numbers have generally been worse than the national average, and our child and poverty numbers consistently worse than average, maybe it’s a break for us that this time we didn’t get the details.

Nobody would say that we haven’t made progress on hunger since the depths of the Great Recession, or since our state statistical low points around the turn of the century. We made a few more gains in this year’s legislative session, with a couple of bills to strengthen school lunch and breakfast, signed with some ceremony by the governor last week.
What the new federal numbers remind us is that it’s a permanent battle – but a battle that can be won.

“Solving hunger is not curing cancer. Curing cancer is really hard,” points out Matt Newell-Ching. “We have experience making significant advances against hunger.”

We just have to keep making them.

Because the coolest food place is one where everybody eats.

NOTE: This column appearedin The Sunday Oregonian, 9/20/15.