29 Nov

Trying to get Congress to set a place for food banks

It took all of Jeremy Carter’s thee jobs to let him produce some turkeys this week.

As this year’s AmeriCorps worker at Lynch Wood Elementary School, working with students and families, he knew about the needs at the high-poverty school, where all the students get free breakfast and lunch daily. So when the Oregon State grad’s second employer, the 671st Engineer Company – he’s a reservist – had 18 frozen turkeys remaining from a donation from Safeway, he had an idea what to do with them.

Then it was just a matter of telling his manager at his third job, at Dutch Bros. Coffee, not to be surprised if 18 turkeys spent a few days in the business’s refrigerator.

Monday, three days before Thanksgiving, the turkeys were a highlight of this week’s Harvest Share food distribution at Lynch Wood school. The program, operated by Metropolitan Family Services, provides food for families in four schools in east county and one each in North Portland, Beaverton and Milwaukie. Typically, the distribution takes place on Fridays, but this week it seemed useful to do it earlier; besides, holding it on Monday fit the parent traffic from Lynch Wood’s student-teacher conferences.

For this Harvest Share – which is, after all, another phrase for Thanksgiving — tables set around the Lynch Wood gym were covered with apples, potatoes, onions and cauliflower, provided by the Oregon Food Bank from local farmer donations. It seemed an appropriately seasonal array, and Noemi Trujano, volunteering partly to show her second-grade daughter that it was important to help, looked at the offerings and saw a dish of apples cooked with pineapple juice and walnuts on her Thanksgiving table.

“It’s a different atmosphere in a school,” said Ally Meyer of Metropolitan Family Services. “People feel comfortable walking in. It’s a built-in community. It’s not a strange place.”

And, especially around this time of year, there’s something to be said for feeding kids.

Across the country this season, we’re not doing terribly well feeding people who need some help. In 2010, President Obama pledged to end child hunger by 2015; five weeks from the target date, it doesn’t look like we’re going to make it. We’re even running into some problems just supporting the food donations that, from a gift of turkeys from a supermarket chain to a truckload of onions from an Oregon farm, are a vital part of our emergency food system.

In the motionless morass that is Congress, 55 tax provisions lapsed this year, and have not yet been renewed. A not particularly sizable one – unless you’re a hard-pressed family trying to stock a Thanksgiving table – is a tax deduction for food donations from businesses and family farms. It’s not a huge amount, but it can cover the cost of picking and packing crops for donation.

“Sixty percent of the food we receive is from grocery and agricultural contributions,” says Jeff Kleen of the Oregon Food Bank. “If Congress doesn’t act now, during the lame duck session, 90 percent of Oregon growers won’t qualify for the deduction. Time is ticking.”

Congress comes back next Tuesday. It’s scheduled to leave the following Thursday. The House has passed a bill to make the food tax donation deduction permanent; the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Oregon’s Ron Wyden, has voted to extend all the tax rules. A Wyden staff member explained Tuesday, the goal is to deal with all the rules together.
If nothing happens, the tax year – and the holiday season, when lots of donation decisions are made – will end without the deductions in place.

“If you’re a small business, tax measures play a vital role,” says Carrie Calvert, director of tax policy at Feeding America, the national alliance of food banks. “We really need Congress to pass this legislation. When we’re struggling, this is such a big deal.”

To make the point on produce, Feeding America sent every Senate office a bag of apples.

Leaving Lynch Wood, Betty Opp also has a bag of apples, crammed in with other holiday ingredients. “I’m a grandmother raising two grandchildren,” five and 10 years old, she explains. Now, “I’ll give them a Thanksgiving dinner, and serve good healthy stuff that the kids will like.”

Otherwise, she’d have sent the kids to other relatives for Thanksgiving, which she did last year. This year, “We’ll have some family dinner, and play some games after that.”

Tax policy is complicated, and these days Washington has problems doing even simple things.
But if Jeremy Carter can draw together three different jobs to help feed people, you’d think that Congress could manage one.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 11/26/14.

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