22 Dec

Food bank volunteers battle hunger and build connections

Just one road, a quiet stretch of Northeast 33rd Avenue rolling up to the Columbia, leads to the Oregon Food Bank headquarters.

But for hundreds of food bank volunteers, providing thousands of vital hours of their time, there are many paths to getting there.

When she was growing up in China, Wen-ying Wu remembers, “My parents taught me, when you have enough for yourself, it’s important to take care of others.”

Decades and thousands of miles later, now that Wu is a business consultant at Kaiser Permanente, she spends Saturday mornings working in the food garden behind the OFB headquarters.

“After the first shift, I was hooked,” she explains, her voice glowing. “After a long week in the office, there’s nothing like digging in the dirt.”

Watching something grow, Wu explains, can be magical. Digging for potatoes is “like a treasure hunt.”
And for a native of Hunan, a province with a legendary spicy cuisine, there was something warming about the discovery that if you let jalapeno peppers ripen from green to red, they just get hotter.
But her experience is as much about people as about nature. Wu enjoys when classes come to visit, and recalls an elementary school student learning that a cherry tomato just picked off the vine tastes different from the ones his family bought in the store.

His discovery: “I think I like tomatoes.”

Working in the garden, Wu has learned, “You form a lot of really strong friendships.”

Every year for her birthday party, she brings 15 or 20 friends to work in the garden. People look forward to the celebration.

“You’ve got to love that,” she explains. “You’re in the dirt.”

Doug Phillips knows just how he began spending his Thursday evenings repacking groceries at the food bank. Ten years ago, he got divorced, and “I found myself with an excess of time on my hands.”

His explanation of why he still packs food every week – and why he also volunteers at the OFB’s major fund-raiser, the July 4 weekend Blues Festival – is equally direct.

“I get more out of it than I put into it,” he says with absolute certainty – and not just because “It’s cheaper than a gym membership.”

An evening working with donated produce, canned goods and government commodities has another ingredient: “Mostly, it’s about the people.”

Phillips, who works in information security at U.S. Bank, looks forward to seeing the regulars who come in Thursday evenings. He also likes meeting the other people he encounters working at the food bank, including those who may have their own hunger issues.

“For a lot of folks,” he says, a little quietly, “that’s really eye-opening.
“It’s not that we don’t have enough food. People can’t afford the food.”

Because of that reality, Phillips supports and admires the food bank’s advocacy on public policy. The target in the OFB’s mission statement, he quotes, is not only hunger but the causes of hunger.

At the Oregon Food Bank, the effects of volunteerism spread widely and invisibly, like the roots of zucchini plants. Just as volunteers get more out of the experience than they expect, so does the food bank. Volunteers bolster each others’ commitment, and bring in their friends. Each volunteer is not just a food packer or a potato grower, but an understanding and a voice going out into society, carrying the message that hunger exists in Oregon, and that there are lots of ways to do something about it.

Or just that no one should be hungry.

“The things that my parents taught me as a young person now make sense,” says Wen-ying Wu.

“I want to feed my community.”

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank web site, 12/21/16.

19 Dec

Repeal of Obamacare would hit Oregon hard

For six years, the Republican position on the Affordable Care Act has been simple:

Repeal and replace.

This was the battle cry even though, as Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (along with a lot of other people) points out, “They have never, after all these years, put out a real replacement.”

Now, Republicans are in a position to enact their slogan, and last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus reaffirmed that repeal would be a first priority – still with no sign of what replacement would look like. So the policy appears to be Repeal and Delay, voting down Obamacare immediately and promising their replacement plan in a few years.

Or as Wyden defines it: Repeal and Run.

And Oregon should be the first place to be running.

No state has bought into the Affordable Care Act more than Oregon (except for the part about designing a workable state web site). Oregon has applied for waivers and additional funding to greatly expand the Oregon Health Plan, its version of Medicaid, and to align the ACA with Oregon’s own inspiration of coordinated care organizations. Nearly 400,000 Oregonians have come into Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act’s expanded eligibility, and more than 200,000 have bought insurance, many with subsidies, from the health.gov web site.

Already, the costs of Oregon’s enthusiastic embrace of Obamacare are helping to put the next legislature into a deep fiscal hole. Oregon is seeking another $1.2 billion from the feds over the next five years, an appeal that may be less warmly received than the state might have hoped before election day.

And that’s before Congress and the Trump administration pull the rug – or maybe the examining table – out from under the program. The hole gets even deeper if House Speaker Paul Ryan achieves his goal of rolling Medicaid and other programs into a sparsely funded block grant.

And change could be coming faster than you can get a doctor’s appointment.
“Probably around January 3 or January 4, the repeal and run strategy begins,” predicts Wyden, as part of a budget reconciliation package that needs only a simple Senate majority, not the 60-vote supermajority usually needed to pass legislation. Reconciliation, he forecasts, will be “a Trojan horse for providing a tax break for the most fortunate and higher insurance costs or no insurance for the rest.”

Wyden, as ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will handle a health policy overhaul, puts Oregon at the front of the issue in another way – along with GOP Rep. Greg Walden, new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the bill’s route through the House.

But after six years of pledges to repeal and replace, Wyden doesn’t expect to see a complete replacement package soon. “It’s like the marquee of an old movie theatre that always says ‘Coming Soon,’” he suggests, “and the movie never quite shows up in your neighborhood.”

There may not be much more clarity coming from the president-elect, whose promise is to replace Obamacare with “something terrific.”

Yet a vote to repeal Obamacare now and replace it later, or repeal it two or three years in the future, will have its own problems. Repeal might take out Medicaid expansion and the subsidies, and maybe the legal requirement for everybody to have insurance. Some Republicans have been saying friendly things about Obamacare’s ban on insurance providers refusing to accept customers with expensive pre-existing conditions, but without the individual mandate, the economics of that guarantee collapse.

And insurance and medical providers, seeing the exchanges coming to an end shortly, might well decide to get out immediately.

“Once you vote for repeal,” says Wyden, “it starts a death spiral.”

An unfortunate image for a medical care program, but probably an accurate diagnosis.

Oregon has a lot riding on the outcome, but Lynne Saxton, director of the Oregon Health Authority, stresses the arguments the state can make, and points out, “The governor has been very clear that we’re not going to reduce benefits, and we’re not going to remove people from care.”

It’s particularly crucial in a state where some counties have as many as 39 percent of residents on Medicaid.

To keep things going, of course, it would be useful for Oregon to get both the $1.2 billion it’s seeking and a five-year extension of its federal waiver allowing the state to continue to run programs its way, goals that Wyden has been down to Salem to discuss with the governor and legislators.

Saxton says she’s been listening to the news out of Washington, and “I don’t hear a lot of people saying, let’s just take health care from people. What I hear them saying is, let’s be more efficient and effective.”

On that subject, she says, Oregon has a lot to offer, including a health cost growth rate half the national average, a one-third reduction in hospital readmissions and cutting avoidable emergency room visits in half.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” says Saxton about Oregon’s maintaining its system, “but I think we have the data to support it.”

If the reality is Repeal and Run, Oregon will need to run pretty fast.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 12/18/16.

09 Dec

The Left Coast has never seemed so far from Washington, D.C.

While other blue walls crumbled in the 2016 election, the one along the Pacific Coast rose even higher – and wasn’t even paid for by Mexico.

Hillary Clinton piled up three landslides in the West Coast states, carrying California by 30 points, Washington by 16 and Oregon by 11. She carried the coast by nearly 5 million votes, while Donald Trump won the entire rest of the country by about 2.5 million. Clinton’s majority in Oregon, the smallest West Coast state, was nearly double Trump’s combined margins in the larger decisive states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

At least we made ourselves clear.

Our differences aren’t just a matter of presidential preference. With last month’s election, the three states are now a bong bloc, a thousand-mile stretch of legal marijuana, joined by our neighbors Nevada and Alaska. This sets us apart not only from most states, but maybe from the incoming administration, the one we rejected.

Last April, long after Washington and Oregon voted for legalization and began establishing our new economies, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, told a Senate hearing, “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized…” After all, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Considering that marijuana is still a federally illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the good grown-ups of the Trump administration will have all the authority they need to remodel the green crosses now decorating the streets of Oregon.

And marijuana isn’t the only heat signal.

All campaign, Donald Trump sneered at the idea of climate change and global warming, suggesting it was a hoax churned up by the Chinese to cripple American industry. (Lately, he’s said his mind is “open” on the subject.) He has pledged to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the major international treaty signed by 193 nations to limit greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere.

This is not how the West Coast sees the world, or its temperature. In fact, we’ve been pioneering our own international agreements on the issue, and the new administration won’t be removing us.

In 2013, the governors of California, Washington and Oregon joined the premier of British Columbia to create the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, a commitment to cut carbon emissions and advance renewable energy. In June 2016, the governors, the B.C. environment minister and the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver met to form the Pacific North America Climate Leadership Plan to advance clean energy.

Two days after the election, California Gov. Jerry Brown promised, “We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time — devastating climate change.” In Oregon, environmentalists, legislators and a spokesman for PGE declared that the state’s carbon reduction policies would continue unchanged.

On the West Coast, possibly, there’s something different in the air.

There’s certainly something different from a presidential campaign driven by resentment of foreigners and immigrants, and fueled by the allure of a trade barrier against Asia and a 30-foot – 40-foot? – barrier against Mexico. Out here, we tend to look more out toward the rest of the world than back toward Idaho.

The West Coast’s signature industries – Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Nike, Microsoft and even the relatively old-industry Boeing – are international by definition, both in market and (in various ways) workforce. While audiences across the country were roaring at Trump’s attacks on immigrants and chanting “Build the Wall!”, high-tech forces all along the West Coast were pushing to increase the skilled immigrant quota.

Cities across the country have declared their refusal to cooperate in a Trump round-up of undocumented immigrants. On the West Coast, immediate rejection came from the mayor of Seattle, the mayor-elect of Portland and the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department – and in California and Oregon, opponents cited state laws against cooperation. According to a New York Times map last week, most West Coast counties have rules against cooperating in a round-up. The governor and legislative leaders of California issued immediate rejections of Trump’s values, and the leaders of the Oregon House of Representatives pledged to “protect and preserve equal opportunity, fairness, and respect for everyone in our great state.”

For decades, Oregonians have looked suspiciously at California. But a moment like this reminds us that we actually have a fairly similar outlook, compared to, say, Kentucky.

Or Trump Tower.

We’re not about to hitch a ride on the California secession movement – that argument was settled at Gettysburg – but Donald Trump’s America seems a less comfortable home for a region that values tolerance, openness, internationalism and environmental survival. The West Coast has racial strains, and a sharp (and maybe sharpening) urban-rural divide, but it may be that its people are in general less afraid – less afraid of change, less afraid of the future, less afraid of the rest of the world, less afraid of each other.

But maybe just a bit afraid of the next president.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/7/14.