Twenty years ago, coming up from California and working as a consultant for the Oregon Hunger Task Force, Patti Whitney-Wise was struck by one difference.
In Sacramento, state legislators were remote figures, each representing hundreds of thousands of people, reachable only by appointment and negotiation. In Salem, legislators roamed loose in the state capitol, available to anyone lurking to make a case.
Whitney-Wise recalls her immediate conclusion: “If you play your cards right, you could get something done here.”
As she retires at the end of this month, as executive director of what’s now called Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, it turns out that she could.
Whitney-Wise has been a vital part of a major statewide effort – an alliance extending from the Oregon Food Bank to advocacy groups to legislators to individuals accosting legislators – that has attacked and made some progress on an Oregon hunger problem the size of the Cascades.
The time when the state first really focused on the problem, Whitney-Wise recalls, can be pinpointed. At the end of the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started compiling and issuing state hunger rankings, based on rolling three-year averages of population surveys.
The first year, 1999, the USDA ranked Oregon as the second-hungriest state in the country. The next year, Oregon was #1.
Recalls Whitney-Wise, “That’s when a lot of emphasis was put on hunger.”
Of course, not everybody bought the USDA’s statistics. “Kitzhaber and Bush in Texas were the two governors who couldn’t believe it,” she says. But “those of us in the hunger community weren’t surprised.”
Then, early in this century, in the wake of the crunching 9/11 recession, Oregon began to make some progress. The key strategy was expanding the state’s participation in the nation’s central anti-hunger program, food stamps. Oregon launched a major public and private outreach effort to sign up Oregonians who qualified for food stamps but weren’t enrolled. The state legislatively expanded the numbers who qualified – and simplified the application from 25 pages to three.
Rapidly, the federal food support coming into Oregon strengthened dramatically. Oregon became one of the top states in the nation in its percentage of eligible residents enrolled in the program, and started getting participation bonuses from the Department of Agriculture. The benefits extended beyond the Oregonians who were getting something to eat; the efforts brought an additional $132 million a year in federal money into the state economy.
(Research has also found that food stamps have the largest multiplier impact of any federal funding; recipients tend to inject the money into the economy quickly, often before lunch.)
And an active advocacy effort, prominently featuring Whitney-Wise, produced a range of legislative anti-hunger efforts, including funding and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, investing in summer food programs, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s Act to End Hunger, a five-year plan.
Oregon improved to being only the 17th hungriest state. It was far from terrific – it still ranked us in the top third, and nobody goes around chanting, “We’re # 17!” – but the change was a demonstration of what effort could do.
Then came the Great Recession, and the not-so-great recovery. We’ve come back from the depths, but hardly all the way.
“It’s still bad,” says Whitney-Wise. “The new normal is not good. The new normal is worse than when we were #1.”
Which, at least, we’re not; we’re closer to #13. According to the USDA’s last figures, released last September, Oregon was tied with several other states with 6.3 percent of its households at some point experiencing hunger – or as the USDA daintily calls it, “very low food security.” Back when Oregon was #1, the number was more like 5.8 percent.
It’s harder to be #1 these days. Hunger has gotten more competitive.
But our prospects have certainly improved to this extent: We now know we can do something about it.
“I remain hopeful, because I’ve seen the difference an effort can make,” says Whitney-Wise. “I feel very good about the number of people, especially young people, taking up the banner and running with it.”
In fact, she remains, as always, indominantly cheerful, despite a career working with poverty and hunger – and state legislators. She’s moving to Minnesota to observe a new grandchild, a figure of even greater attraction than a Ways and Means co-chair, and will be honored at a May 12 dinner marking the 10th anniversary of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.
She knows Oregon problems that remain.
“We underfund our systems,” she points out. “It’s a beautiful state, so we think it’s good enough.
“It’s not good enough.”
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Ore4gonian, 4/17/16.