See also Grocers Support ‘Fresh Alliance’
Photo by Mark Washington
High joblessness puts strain on local services
By Melissa Chavez
Oregon’s unemployment rate has remained at roughly 10.5 percent — a percentage point above the national average — for the last year, and shows no sign of improving.
The state Employment Department reported Tuesday that 209,601 Oregonians were unemployed in November. With that many Oregonians out of work, food security has become a top priority statewide.
The latest USDA hunger report shows that about 13.9 percent of households — more than 500,000 Oregonians suffer from food insecurity, and another 225,000 experience very low security, meaning they are forced to cut or skip meals on a regular basis because they cannot afford food.
Enter the Oregon Food Bank, a nonprofit charitable organization that acts as a hub connecting a network of 20 regional food banks, agencies, and programs, to distribute emergency food to approximately 240,000 hungry people each month in Oregon and southwest Washington.
The OFB has been operating out of its 108,000-square-foot northeast Portland building and warehouse for nearly 9 years. The warehouse stores 4 million pounds of food at any time, and moves 38 million pounds of food each year in just that one facility.
Jean Kempe-Ware, public relations manager for the nonprofit, says that OFB operates different from any other food bank in the nation.
“Here in Oregon, we have a wonderful, equitable, collaborative network to pull resources together,” she said. “If one regional food bank has a ton of onions, we can pick them up and distribute them. Someone in Coos Bay will have a similar mix of product as someone in Ontario or Portland due the sharing throughout the network.”
Kempe-Ware stresses the importance of volunteers, workers, businesses and individuals who donate time, money, and goods to the food bank, especially in this economy.
“I mean this is a horrendous number of emergency food boxes distributed through the OFB network — 917,000 from July 2009 to June 2010,” she said. “We’re extremely thankful to our community for the support.”
The network includes 20 regional food banks — four that are operated by the OFB and 16 independent nonprofit organizations — and 947 local partner agencies, including pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, low-income senior and day care centers, and other programs. All together, 72 million pounds of food is distributed through this network each year, with the total value of $41,012,314 in the last fiscal year.
“Our warehouse operates day and night — during the day we’re receiving food donations and agencies are picking up food. At night, we’re loading semis and preparing food for agencies to pick up,” said Kempe-Ware.
The OFB network receives 55 percent of its food from food industry donations — from stores like Fred Meyer, Whole Foods, and Albertsons — 15 percent from the USDA from Farm Bill credits, 13 percent is purchased with money that is donated to the organization, and 16 percent comes from food drives.
Becky Leonard, co-owner with her husband of downtown food cart DC Vegetarian, holds a food drive every Thanksgiving.
“We deal with food every day, and see waste. This is our way to make up for the stuff that we do the rest of the year that might not be as friendly,” Leonard said. “The food bank does great outreach in Oregon, and is always accepting food. They make it really simple to donate through them.”
Thanksgiving was just the start of the busiest food drive season, said Kempe-Ware. She added that she’s been told by OFB CEO Rachel Bristol that food drive donations are down right now, but will hopefully pick up closer to Christmas. The food bank is always looking for donations, big or small, food or monetary.
The most wanted foods are peanut butter and other nut butters, canned or dried beans and peas, canned and boxed meals, pasta, rice cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, cooking oil, low-fat and low-sugar products, shelf-stable milks, and canned meats such as tuna, chicken, and salmon.
The Oregon Food Bank’s reach also extends beyond Oregon and Southwest Washington.
On Dec. 13, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law, updating the school lunch program, improving after-school and child-care food programs, and working toward ending obesity in children.
Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate with the Oregon Food Bank, had worked for the last two years on seeing the legislation get through Congress. Kleen met with Rep. David Wu, D-OR, and other members of Congress or their staff to raise awareness for the act.
“We were concerned about the House passing it. We knew if it wasn’t passed by the end of this congressional session, all our work would’ve been for naught,” Kleen said. “We’re pleased to see Congress pass a strong child nutrition bill and for the president to sign it into law.”
Next in his advocacy work will be seeing that more aid will go to those in need, through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the next Farm Bill, and others.
“We need strong public assistance in addition to emergency food distribution,” Kleen said. “To end hunger, it’s going to take a strong partnership between government and private charities like the Oregon Food Bank.”