The bare hungry numbers, as usual, sounded grim.
As Oregon Food Bank head Susannah Morgan noted in her State of Oregon Hunger remarks Wednesday, there are still a lot of hungry people here using emergency food – as in 800,000, or a fifth of the state.
It’s a very crowded holiday table – or maybe a very empty one.
“But there is good news,” noted Morgan.
“It’s not getting any worse.”
The number seeking help has stopped spiking – which is a considerable improvement over all the years, through the 1990s and during the Great Recession, that Oregon spent in food free fall.
Since then we’ve achieved a better economy – a smaller percentage of families visiting food pantries include someone unable to find work – and Oregonians have also stepped up their public and private efforts to help.
Over the same time – maybe not coincidentally – we’ve become a national food capital, with Portland profiled this year in The Washington Post among America’s top restaurant cities. Oregon’s had an explosion in people who care about food, of support for hunger from people in the food business, of increasing donations to the food bank from people growing some of the most spectacular produce in the world.
The common image of the food bank is a canned food drive, said Morgan, but “Within the next two years, one in every two pounds of food we give out will be fresh. We’re moving from a network of Seven-11s to fresh fruit and vegetable stalls.”
This sounds about right for a place where vegetables in restaurants have biographies, a state that’s been a pioneer on farm-to-fork with rising quality on both ends.
And last week, the effort marked another advance. Congress passed a budget – itself a cause for surprise and celebration these days – that included some direct benefits to help people get something to eat. After years of cliffhanger last-minute one-year renewals – a lot like the federal budget itself – tax provisions to encourage food donations were expanded and made permanent. To Lisa Davis, senior vice president of government relations for the national food bank alliance Feeding America, “This is a huge win!”
Besides making several other key anti-poverty tax credits permanent, the budget deal also includes a small increase – the first in years – for TEFAP, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which sends some federal money to the states to help operate programs. Considering that national hunger statistics haven’t quite recovered to pre-Great Recession levels, it’s all the kind of direct-to-table help that too many Oregonians – and Americans – still need.
The mix also had a particular ingredient.
“There’s been a very strong Oregon component to the package, especially on the Senate side,” said Jon Stubenvoll, director of advocacy at the Oregon Food Bank. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, made a priority of the tax extenders. As ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, Jeff Merkley focused on the food spending measures.
The OFB provided some reinforcements. “We reached out to food banks with members on the subcommittee,” explained Stubenvoll, listing the Maine food bank with Sen. Susan Collins, the Missouri food bank with Sen. Roy Blunt and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, and the Alaska food bank with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, on the Appropriations Committee.
“We’ve been working with them for a long time,” said Stubenvoll, “and today the stars aligned.”
To raise Oregon from the bleak hunger depths it recently occupied, and up toward the statewide nutrition levels envisioned by Morgan, a lot of stars have had to align. That’s included the labors of the food bank, with a donation level that makes it one of the largest by volume in the country, helped by a sustained effort from large parts of the Oregon food world. It’s involved a steady lobbying drive in Salem, and the commitment of the Oregon congressional delegation.
And there’s a connection between the blooming Oregon of superstar chefs and upscale food carts and what Morgan calls “the desire of people to feed their families good food.”
Now, she says, “I firmly believe that Oregon will be the first state in the United States to end hunger,” setting a striking goal for a place that just a few years ago was the hungriest in the country. “We grow food here, we think about food, we talk about food. We can do it.”
To Morgan, the combination of who we are, what we value, and what we do about it points us toward a goal particularly suiting this season:
We could send hunger on holiday.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/20/15.