Interviews with experts on the science, politics, and culture of food
Update May 25-2012:
“First, we need jobs that pay a livable wage, but if we can’t have that, we need food stamps so that we make sure that people are being fed.”
“If we improved the food stamp program, and gave people, both in terms of the benefit levels and in the nutrition education component— that could help people learn to eat healthier, to stretch their food dollar, and to buy what’s culturally and healthwise appropriate foods with dignity— we could end hunger tomorrow.”—Rachel Bristol, CEO Oregon Food Bank
Since our interview with Rachel Bristol, CEO of Oregon Food Bank in February 2011, I wanted to find out how things may have changed for those in need from someone whose organization is on the front-line of the fight against hunger and food insecurity in Oregon. After all, since almost a year and a half ago, the stock market has recovered nicely, and the state (and federal) unemployment rates have inched down about a half a percentage point. Surely, things must be better for our state’s poor as the state’s economy slowly improves from the serious recession that began in 2008
Not at all so.
The stock market recovery, and the lower unemployment rate do not reflect the grim realities facing a growing number of people living below the poverty line. According to Bristol, many of the job gains were in low paying jobs that are not livable wage jobs. Those who fall within the low-income strata, about 12% are seniors, and kids (under 18) make up 34% of those in poverty. Bristol explains that last year, “there was a 13% increase in the number of emergency food boxes distributed within the state”, totaling 47 million pounds of food. This year, there has been another 13% increase in distribution. At the same time that demand is escalating sharply for emergency food supplies, austerity measures in Washington D.C. have significantly cut federal assistance for commodity foods to the states, including a 9 million pound reduction this year to Oregon’s food banks.
Over the past several decades, continual cuts to the nation’s social safety-net have reduced it to mere taters, people are living on emergency food supplies for much longer periods of time, on rations only nutritionally intended to provide short-term relief. In rural communities throughout Oregon, the blue collar manufacturing jobs that once provided livable wage jobs, such as work in the mills and in the fisheries have long since disappeared. Today, Bristol talks about the impact of poverty on rural communities that creates generational poverty, where the children of families who have grown up in poverty, unable to afford college, are not able to climb out of poverty for themselves either.
“The state’s Food Bank resources are getting worse, and resources continue to be stretched thin,” says Bristol. The Republicans in the House want to cut up to 100 billion in funds for the nutrition assistance portion of the federal Food and Farm Bill. High on their hit list is the food stamps program that is largely seen as welfare (which it is), but significant cuts to this vital program for the poor will force even more children and families onto the doorsteps of the charitable network, Bristol warns.
Maybe before the Farm Bill is voted upon this year, considered by food policy experts the single most important piece of federal legislation that involves food and agriculture, and nutrition assistance for those in financial need, the heads of the nation’s Food Banks could be summoned to testify before congress on what they are witnessing at the ground level in their respective states.
Instead of directing tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to large corporate farms, the Food and Farm Bill could increase funding for federal assistance to rural communities for development of local and regional food systems to improve the long-term health of rural economies. If you start to consider the stimulus value of an increase in food stamp benefits, and expanded access for those in need, not only could we significantly reduce hunger in this country, we would boost the stricken economy with what it needs most at this moment in time: people with money (in the form of food vouchers) to immediately spend.
Presently, Oregon is experiencing among the highest hunger rates for children in the nation. At the very least, no child should go hungry in this country, no matter one’s political ideology. Talk to your local Food Bank and find out how your local community is doing, and how you can help.
We may have to wait a little longer for congress to help.
Below, originally Published, July 2011:
New York City hunger activist Joel Berg refers to it as the modern day bucket brigade. A time when as a young nation armies of individual volunteers assembled to fight house fires literally one bucketful of water at a time as neighborhood after neighborhood went up in flames. Our public assistance programs similarly well-intentioned are a patchwork quilt of government agencies, private charities, and public assistance programs valiantly trying to stem the tide of food insecurity and hunger against an onslaught of wrenching societal disfunction. In Oregon alone, 20 regional food banks, and 950 local agencies are involved in distributing food to those in need.
And, it’s not nearly enough.
As Rachel Bristol, CEO of Oregon Food Bank informs us in this interview, 25% of the state’s populace are receiving food stamps, and many of those impacted are children.
Historically, the food assistance programs that began in the early 1970′s, and that grew into the federal Food Stamp Program (now called SNAP) in early 1980′s was designed to provide short-term emergency assistance. Tragically, over the past three decades, not only have more people fallen into poverty, many eligible families with one full-time worker still require long-term food assistance. Addressing the annual nutritional needs of families was never the purpose of the food stamp or subsequent SNAP program.
In addition to the challenge of meeting daily nutritional needs, Bristol says that recipients typically run out of food assistance by the end of the second or third week of each month. While 30 years ago, 200,000 people in Oregon were served by the Food Stamp program, today nearly a million people in Oregon, and Clark County in Washington (Oregon Food Bank also serves this region) receive emergency food boxes.
While the creation of new jobs is important, Oregon has the 10th highest unemployment rate in the country, the creation of livable wage jobs is even more critical. Over the same thirty year period, America has shipped many of its better paying manufacturing jobs overseas —while wages generally have not kept up with inflation.
On the front line of fighting hunger and food insecurity for 30 years, Rachel Bristol sadly reflects that we are much worse off today than before. Part 2 of this interview will focus on some of the potential solutions toward staunching this national epidemic of poverty and impoverishment afflicting—not just the belly, but the very hearth of our nation’s soul.