Providing food to the hungry is foundational anti-poverty work. The Romans and Egyptians both are recorded as having organized large-scale food distributions to the needy. Today, Americans and Oregonians alike are experiencing significant increases in food insecurity and the need for food to supplement household budgets constrained by housing costs, childcare costs, and general inflation.
An estimated 720,000 Oregonians – a bout 1 in 6 – rely on SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits to eat. A SNAP benefit will pay for enough food to eat for 20 of 30 days in any given month. About 300,000 Oregon children are eligible for free- or reduced-price federally funded meals through schools, but only half of eligible children participate. Despite these impressive numbers, individuals and families still must fill the gap of finding enough food all month long and at times when schools are not session.
Oregon’s regional food banks – all 21 of them – step into that breach every day, partnering with Oregon Food Bank and Feeding America to recover food from grocery stores, manufacturers, and local growers and to distribute donated USDA commodities and to use the power of bulk buying to purchase and redistribute food. Eight Community Action Agencies in Oregon run their regional food banks: NeighborImpact (Bend), ACCESS (Medford), United Community Action Network (Roseburg), Community Services Consortium (Corvallis), Community Action Program of East Central Oregon (Pendleton), Yamhill Community Action Partnership (McMinnville), and Oregon Coast Community Action (Coos Bay). The rest of the CAAs in the state are closely aligned with their local food banks in collaboratively meeting the needs, including food, of economically struggling individuals and families.
Food banks have historically depended on private donations to fund their operations—warehouse costs, vehicle purchase, maintenance and operations, and staff salaries and benefits with food itself mostly being donated. More than half the operating funding of most regional food banks in Oregon comes from private donations. Regional food banks are the engines that keep hundreds of local food banks running across the state—groups which utilize literally thousands of volunteers.
Today, the survival of these groups is under threat: In March of this year, COVID-related SNAP benefits were reduced by 40% from an average of $450 per month to $270 per month. Meanwhile, demand has soared—doubling and tripling the numbers of Oregonians that were being served pre-COVID. Faith and philanthropy can only do so much to fill the gap; food banks are reporting alarming spend down of reserves and challenges in sustaining operations.
There are several proposals before the Oregon legislature to help fill the gap, including $8 million for the Oregon Hunger Relief Fund and a $22 million proposal to provide operating and capital dollars for the regional food banks. There is also a new Farm Bill pending before Congress that may provide some relief. Food banks are counting on support from some public source. Food banks across the state are raising the alarm: the present situation is unsustainable. Without intervention, Oregon, which worked so hard a few years ago to shed the unwanted label of “Hungriest State in the Nation,” will be back to those dark days.