Oregon's among the hungriest U.S. states

New data depicts Oregon as one of the hungriest states in the country, with statistics showing big jumps in Southern Oregon residents needing food stamps and other assistance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on Monday that the current hunger rate in Oregon is 5.5 percent, among the highest in the nation and comparable to Mississippi, Maine, South Carolina and Georgia.

That translates into about 78,000 Oregon households that, at some point during the year, skipped meals, shrank portions and worried about making it to the end of the month, said Mark Edwards, an Oregon State University sociologist and expert in hunger issues.

The worst news may be yet to come, Edwards said. The numbers reported on Monday are three-year averages, from 2005 through 2007. The data for 2008 has not yet been tallied, he said.

"In 2005 and 2007 this was how much worse it was getting. How much more so is it going to get with all the indicators — job loss, increase in food, fuel and housing costs? With all of the things that have happened in the past 11 months, we can certainly anticipate that the situation has gotten worse," said Edwards.

Representatives of area food banks report a 25 to 30 percent increase in people needing help in White City and west Medford, areas where there are greater concentrations of low-income households. The Salvation Army has seen a dramatic spike in October for its west Medford location, said Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager for ACCESS Inc.

"They went from being fairly consistent in serving 300 boxes to 600 boxes being served," Yates said.

At the same time, donations are down. A recent food drive by a local middle school garnered 46 percent less food than last year, said Yates.

"With increased need, our resources are in the decline," said Yates.

The number of people needing help with food, gas or rent has grown in the past year and accelerated in recent months. The Oregon Department of Human Services reported that the district including Medford, Ashland, Grants Pass and Cave Junction saw a 26 percent increase in the number of families relying on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in October, compared with one year ago. The number of households relying on food stamps increased 19 percent since last year.

Statewide, the number of families receiving temporary assistance is up about 16 percent, or 2,900 families, from October 2007. Households receiving food stamps increased by approximately 13 percent, for an additional caseload of about 29,000 households compared with a year earlier.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families provides cash assistance to families who have children under the age of 18. To qualify, families must have very few assets and little or no income. The current maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $528 and clients are expected to participate in the JOBS employment and training program.

Oregon's rate of food insecurity is similar to the national average, about 12 percent. But a larger proportion is experiencing very low food security, often referred to as "hunger," Edwards said.

Each year, the USDA measures hunger as "food insecurity" using an 18-item survey of thousands of U.S. households that asks adults about the decisions they made in the past year regarding putting food on the table for their families and themselves.

"We're not talking about people who just forgot their lunch one day. People are telling us, 'The food we bought just didn't last and we didn't have money to get more,'" said Edwards. "Or, 'We were coming to the end of the month and I had to go without eating so my kids could eat.' "

Food insecurity is not the same as starvation. But it does measure who may be "on the raw edge of hunger," said Lauri Stewart, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.

"People may be eating. But they're not eating reliably," she said.

Yates said he suspects the post-holiday season will be the worst for local food banks.

"People are in a giving spirit during the holidays. Our feeling here is that we'll see a huge spike in (need in) January and February," said Yates.

To offset that need, Yates has been asking businesses such as the Grange Co-op, Harry & David and Amy's Kitchen to give more. The companies' help is needed not only here in Jackson and Josephine counties, but in other areas across the state. As a statewide nonprofit food bank, ACCESS can trade excess Rogue Valley-generated goods for other items not locally available, he said.

In 2007, the Oregon Food Bank saw its first significant increase in demand for food boxes in several years due to the downturn in the economy, Edwards said.

However, the 5.5 percent rate increase does not take into account the more serious economic downturn in 2008, he said.

"I anticipate that the percentage of those experiencing hunger will go up even more next year given what our economy has experienced," Edwards said.

The recent survey showed a significant increase in two-parent families with children needing assistance, said Edwards.

"That's particularly disconcerting. People want to blame this on single parenthood. But we had especially high hunger rates among our traditional families," said Edwards.

Increased fuel, food and housing costs means it takes at least two minimum-wage earners to pay for basic needs, Yates said. ACCESS has seen many new families, particularly those of blue-collar workers, he said.

"We're seeing people in the construction industry. This wasn't usual for them but they felt they needed to come here for their families," said Yates.

These people may not know they are eligible, or they may resist asking for help — even as their need increases, Edwards said.

"We have a new group of people who may never have imagined they would qualify or who may have been critical of those who have needed help. These are folks who may feel quite a bit of shame in asking for help. But if you are in need, you should be able to get the help to tide you over until things get better," Edwards said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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