Food banks in Oregon have had to tighten their belts as hunger swells across the state > Oregon

Rising prices and rising demand are not letting up

By Kaylee Tornay/InvestigateWest

Food aid needs are at an all-time high in Oregon. and food bank managers are sounding the alarm about rising hunger across the state.

Local and regional grocery managers said they see no sign of demand easing in the coming months, and at least one said the pantry she manages has been forced to reduce the amount of groceries it offers due to rising prices and rising demand .

“We would need in-kind donations to grow with demand,” said Ranae Staley, general manager of The Giving Plate in central Oregon, which began offering £19 of food to each customer twice a month in early November, instead of £30 per person a year 2021. “We have to adapt somewhere to not be in a place where we have to turn people away.”

Cynthia Raczko and her great-granddaughter Aurelia Haynes help volunteer Rose Mary Garrels collect food for a customer during the Keizer Community Food Bank at Faith Lutheran Church in Salem, Oregon. (Moriah Ratner/Investigate West)

If food banks are a barometer of a community’s financial strain, the pressure is now nearly as high as it was in the first year of the pandemic, when COVID-related closures fueled massive layoffs and battered the national economy.

Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank, the state’s main hunger relief organization, estimates that 1.5 million people will have visited the state’s food banks and pantries by the end of the year. This total is only slightly below the 1.7 million visitors in 2020.

“It just exploded during the pandemic,” said Morgan, who has been fighting hunger for 26 years. “I don’t have any data to make me think we’ve ever broken a million before.”

In 2021, the demand for food aid dropped to 1.2 million people. Researchers and food bank officials attributed the decline to myriad forms of federal aid deployed during the pandemic, including expanding the child tax credit, stimulus payments, universal school meals and expanding rent and food assistance programs.

By mid-2022, many of these programs had ended, even as prices of all types of goods were skyrocketing. More and more families turned to food banks again to ensure they could put food on the table.

At the Keizer Community Food Bank earlier this month, more than 70 vehicles squeezed through the line during morning food distribution — the most, volunteers said, they had ever seen.

Marisol Montes’ green sedan was one of them. It was the first time she visited the site after her family’s finances were strained after two weeks of unemployment.

Seeing how many people had joined her to pick up food that day was “an eye opener” to how common her situation was.

Further up the line, Sandy, who declined to give her last name, said a combination of her mother and husband moving in and inflation had overwhelmed her fixed-income household.

“We knew retirement was going to be tight,” she said. “We just didn’t think it would be that tight.”

Marisol Montes loads groceries into the Faith Lutheran Church in Salem. (Moriah Ratner/Investigate West)

High costs lead to increasing requirements

Persistent inflation had a two-fold effect on the table system that year.

The increasing demand has forced many Tafel to buy more provisions. And while wholesale prices are generally more stable than what a shopper sees at the grocery store, nonprofit dollars aren’t going as far as they used to, either.

The Oregon Food Bank, for example, spent about $600,000 on groceries before the pandemic, said Morgan, the food bank’s CEO. This year, that number has grown to $10 million.

Although an influx of state and federal emergency funds made this level of spending possible, Morgan said it was “entirely unsustainable” over the long term.

Reducing the number of people who rely on the food banking system is key to lowering those purchases, she said. The Oregon Food Bank is also working to build relationships with local farmers and increase donations, but at one point she said, “There’s no more juice in this lemon.”

Your organization buys and stores much of the food that makes its way through regional distribution centers and into pantries like the Keizer Community Food Bank.

In addition, the local operations buy some of their own wholesale groceries while also seeking community donations to fully stock their shelves.

Staley said The Giving Plate, the largest pantry in central Oregon, gets between 20% and 30% of its groceries from the Oregon Food Bank. About 25% of revenue comes from foundation grants. The rest, she said, comes from community donations of food and money.

The Giving Plate saw a 60% increase in visitors to its pantry this year over last year. While local donations have increased during the pandemic, Staley says they have not kept up with demand.

Judy Liechty manages cars lined up at the Keizer Community Food Bank at Faith Lutheran Church in Salem. (Moriah Ratner/Investigate West)

Staley’s uncertainty about whether demand will ease in the coming months led to her decision to reduce the amounts of food distributed in 2022, she said. The weight reduction means each person now gets about 15 days’ worth of meals instead of 24, she said. Each customer can visit the pantry twice a month.

Staley said the regional distribution site, where the pantry receives groceries from the Oregon Food Bank, doesn’t always have enough of the items The Giving Plate needs. The renovation of The Giving Plate’s facility in Bend has also reduced their ability to store food.

Safety nets expanded, but gaps persist

In 2020 and 2021, actions by state and federal leaders have been driven by a sense of emergency created by the pandemic.

And money followed.

The Oregon Food Bank’s record spending on groceries this year was made possible in large part by the Oregon Legislature’s allocation of $26 million to the organization over two years to cover food purchases and the cost of storing and distributing food to support other pantries. That total includes $12 million in US bailout funds.

The organization also received $800,000 in federal funding to administer a program called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides meal boxes to residents age 60 and older in 12 Oregon counties.

The Oregon Department of Human Services received $20 million in federal funding to advance the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which assists individuals and families with incomes 300% or less of the federal poverty line through food pantries, food banks, and eating places. The Oregon Food Bank also runs this program.

“The state of Oregon (was) a big supporter and provided us with funds to shop at prices we’ve never been able to afford before,” Morgan said.

Some increased government support is underway. The federal government has increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by about 45% since 2020, said Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for Oregon DHS. However, some benefits will be cut as federal and state public health emergencies taper off, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC

Other measures that have helped households remain stable enough to avoid the need for food aid have already expired. For example, the expanded child tax credit, touted by the Biden administration as a key factor in reducing child poverty in 2021, ended in 2022. Universal school meals ended after the 2021-2022 school year, and only California and Maine decided to close them fund nationwide on an ongoing basis.

Volunteer Teresa Read helps a customer load groceries into his car during the Keizer Community Food Bank at Faith Lutheran Church in Salem. (Moriah Ratner/Investigate West)

With no ongoing action to reduce demand for food aid, food bank managers described great uncertainty about the future.

“You can think of the food banking system as a sort of last resort for starving families, so you’d think the long-term solution to hunger would be multiple systemic changes,” said Rick Gaupo, executive director of Marion-Polk Food Share, the regional food bank. which sends groceries to places like the Keizer Community Food Bank.

“From the minimum wage to housing costs to health care costs, all of these impact poverty, which impacts hunger,” he said.

In Oregon, Morgan said her organization and the Oregon Hunger Free Partners are drafting legislation to be introduced in the next session that would create a state program that would run alongside SNAP but would be available to some people who do are not eligible for the federal program, such as B. Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The legislature will pass a new budget in 2023. Morgan said the longer session will allow more time to work out the details of her bill, including analyzing costs.

“A complicated bill for a program like this requires some work to build political support,” she said.

Morgan said she wanted to push back on the idea that a mere return to pre-pandemic hunger levels – when about 800,000 people depended on food banks – was sufficient progress.

“I’m like, ‘No, it was never okay,'” she said. “It is fundamentally wrong to build a society where one in five of us cannot meet our basic needs and has to make impossible choices between rent and food or medicine and food. And I hoped that a shared experience like the pandemic would help us build a movement of people who see it too.”

FEATURED IMAGE: The shelves of the Keizer Community Food Bank earlier this month. (Moriah Ratner/Investigate West)

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