21 Nov

This Thanksgiving, biggest food pressure isn’t from too much turkey

It could be an unusual Thanksgiving.

About half the country, and more than half of Oregonians, may approach the season feeling at once thankful and terrified. Lots of Americans this Thursday could face conflicting impulses to gather at the Thanksgiving table and to hide beneath it.

Untouchable by any election returns, of course, are the deepest roots of our thankfulness: each other. And if the theory of Thanksgiving is gratitude, its practice is feeding people.

In Oregon, with some of the richest lands and waters in the world, that mandate is more than seasonal.
This fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its latest edition of “Household Food Insecurity in the United States” to limited notice; possibly Americans were distracted by something. Based on an average of surveys over three years, the report found that from 2013 to 2015 significantly fewer American households reported low food security than during the previous three-year period, 2010-2012. In fact, over that time, only one state in the country reported a significant decrease in its food security level:


Pass the stuffing.

It’s not that we’re having our own private recession. Our overall economy is strong, and as of last week, jobs were growing here at twice the national rate. But there are parts of Oregon where the recession from the last century never ended, and others where the only thing growing faster than the economy is the cost of housing.

We’re producing places to work faster than places to live, and our current level of cool is attracting more people and driving up rents. Mark Edwards of Oregon State recently found that renters in Oregon were six times as likely to have food problems as homeowners, double the national rate.

“People still have to make impossible choices,” notes Matt Newell-Ching of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, “between paying for rent and paying for food.”

Oregon’s biggest defense against hunger’s squeeze on its citizens has been federal food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With state and private outreach efforts, Oregon has achieved one of the nation’s highest percentages of citizens who qualify for SNAP actually being enrolled in the program, a flow of federal help that’s been vital, especially in the state’s rural, hungriest areas.

A recent collection of academic studies of the program, “SNAP Matters,” offered the conclusion, “SNAP surpasses the (Earned Income Tax Credit) as the nation’s most effective antipoverty program for the nonelderly.”

Now, the state’s first line of defense looks newly vulnerable. The longtime goal of House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, to wrap food stamps and other safety net programs into a block grant likely to shave pieces off all of them, especially when the next recession comes around, will now be unblocked by a Democratic White House or a Democratic Senate. The pipeline to the plates of 700,000 Oregonians could get narrower.

“He calls it ‘A Better Way,’” says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a D.C. hunger advocacy group. “I call it a meaner way.”

The president-elect, Weill notes carefully, has never said anything about hunger programs, and a large infrastructure spending program could provide some jobs and help with incomes. But Weill notes that the House Republicans’ drive to cut and repackage hunger programs has been persistent, and the coming months will provide multiple opportunities for the cutters: a spending bill that has to be passed early next month to keep the government in business; a reconciliation bill due next year to set out the priorities of the Trump administration; a child nutrition reauthorization bill that Congress has not yet managed to pass, and an upcoming farm bill that includes the budget for food stamps.

As Thanksgiving approaches, you can hear knives being sharpened.

“Hunger continues to be a monumental problem in our state,” said Sen. Ron Wyden last week. “When you’re talking about programs that are a lifeline to vulnerable families, that is what our core values are.

“We are going to be in some of the toughest battles of our life, a battle royal for people who deserve to have government on their side.”

Speaking into the distinctly unthankful Oregon mood following the election, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson urged last week, “Moving forward, we ask everyone reading this to consider ways to be an ally to your neighbor.”

A lot of Oregonians may need allies in the immediate future: immigrants, Muslims, possibly women trying to keep control of their own bodies, not to mention widely despised groups such as journalists. And there could be a particularly pressing need in the particularly Oregon problem of hunger, a need for support both of federal programs and of private efforts such as the Oregon Food Bank.

This year, a new and colder climate could push Oregonians to take on the first duties of Thanksgiving:

Set places at the table.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/20/16.

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