Poverty, Food Insecurity on the Rise in Benton County: More Local Families Can’t Afford Meals

Each week brings new stories about the unemployment rate, the economy’s modest gains or losses, and other indices of wealth or the lack thereof. What is never very clear is the local context of all these numbers and reports. What do they say about Corvallis families sitting down to dinner or waking up each day looking for breakfast?

Oregon has an incredibly high number of families who are food insecure, and Linn and Benton counties are no exception.

What is Food Insecurity?

A food insecure household is one that struggles at some point to adequately feed its members—a household that may not know where the next meal will come from. Besides struggling to find food, people who are food insecure also typically have poor health: diabetes, obesity, malnourishment, and other problems.

The 2010 Census found that in Corvallis, 9.7 percent of families and 20.6 percent of the population were below the poverty line, and 38 percent of household members who have to share food to make it last are children under the age of 18.

Anne Hoisington, MS, RD, and senior instructor with the OSU Extension program, researches community and household food security.

“Food insecurity is really an income issue for families; when money is scarce due to other household costs (rent, childcare, transportation, health care, utilities), the food budget is trimmed to free up dollars needed for other costs,” she said. “Single parent households, low-income households, and black and Hispanic household members have higher rates of food insecurity.”

A 2009 Oregon State Extension study found that 86 percent of Hispanic women in South Corvallis experienced food insecurity that year.

Those who cannot afford nutritious food often lack comprehensive health insurance and struggle to pay their rent or mortgage. They need childcare. They do not have reliable transportation.

“Health care is a crucial resource for families living at low incomes. Many households that turn to these programs to feed their family also have medical debt,” said Hoisington. “Food security has health consequences, and health problems can exacerbate poverty—this can be a vicious cycle.”

Compounding the problem is the emotional stress of hunger and poverty. This is where abstract-sounding issues like sequestration become very real and very painful for local families. With so many problems and so much need, what is being done locally to address food security?

According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, “Each month, over 230 families visit the South Corvallis Food Bank to receive a six-day food box; these 230 food boxes provide food for over 1,000 people.”

The South Corvallis Food Bank is one of 74 member agencies that receive food from the Linn-Benton Food Share. The Food Share is like the hub of a critical support wheel: it acquires and distributes food to agencies, shelters, and other places that then distribute food to individuals. In 2012, the Food Share delivered 5.4 million pounds of food in Linn and Benton counties.

Oregon’s Poverty Rate on the Rise

Mike Gibson is in his 29th year as executive director of the Linn Benton Food Share and knows the local impact of poverty on hunger. He cites numbers to illuminate the scale of the problem:

There is a 17.5 percent poverty rate in Oregon, up 36 percent since 2007. A family of four must make less than $23,050 to be considered at or below the poverty level. This qualifies the family for SNAP, WIC, and other benefits. To qualify for an emergency food box, a household can make up to 185 percent of the poverty level, but of all the people who get emergency food boxes in Linn and Benton counties, 70 percent of them are below the poverty level. Since 2007, “the number of people coming into emergency food pantries has gone up 35 percent,” said Gibson.

Some who need emergency food boxes are earning 50 percent of the poverty level. The bottom line is that families in Linn and Benton counties who need emergency food often do not even make $20,000 per year.

Those who need help are working poor, young children, the elderly. Some have given up looking for jobs, and some cannot work. They cut their own meals to give their children more. They go without at the end of the month, waiting for their next check. It is a diverse cross section of our community.

Gibson claims it is not a food bank’s role to lift people out of poverty. He sees his agency as first responders: they make sure people have access to nutritious food.

“You would hope we have elected officials who are concerned about poverty,” Gibson said. Poverty and hunger are complex issues with many causes and effects. Gibson cites programs like Head Start and workforce development that can offer some tools for offering pathways out of poverty.

“You can’t not feed people. They need the food first,” Gibson said.

Providing nutritious foods is another major concern for Gibson. He is very proud of his staff and the high quality of the food that they serve.

“If you’re poor and you’ve got choices to make, you’re generally going to go for calories rather than nutrition,” said Gibson.

This leads to choosing calorie-dense foods that are cheap; it’s a contributing factor to a high obesity rate and diabetes.

Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Oregon State University Extension Small Farms program, agreed.

“It’s sort of a double whammy of being food insecure and dealing with food that’s sort of poisoning you at the same time.”

Because of this, the Food Share prioritizes funding for healthy food. It does not buy soda or chips, instead selecting low-fat, low-salt, and low-sugar foods.

Fresh Alliance Stores Donate Food

Learning how to cook and preserve nutritious food can be another tricky problem. Some non-profits and food banks offer cooking classes and recipes to help people learn. Gibson said that Linn-Benton Food Share prioritizes purchasing and distributing food over teaching people how to cook in order to maximize its resources.

The Food Share buys 550,000 pounds of food a year. This includes oats, cereal, brown rice, and legumes as well as staple goods like tuna and peanut butter that fortify cupboards with sources of protein. Its workers consider the nutritional needs of their clients and they use the Fresh Alliance to pick up goods from local stores.

Fred Meyer, Albertsons, Ray’s, Trader Joe’s, Market of Choice, and Wal-Mart all donate milk, produce, and meat. Corporate offices can dictate local donations: Safeway and Costco are allowed to donate only bread and WinCo corporate offices do not allow their local store to participate in the program. In 2012, local Fresh Alliance stores donated 711,000 pounds of food. Gibson expects about 100,000 pounds of food to come from the new Wal-Mart.

Community Gardens and Farms

Community gardens for the landless, like SAGE in Corvallis, can also help ensure a quality diet. Some community gardens offer financial assistance for those who need help renting a garden plot. But in order for this to make an impact, we need much more community garden space set aside.

Garry Stephenson’s Small Farms program equips beginning farmers and ranchers with the tools to manage and sustain small-scale operations. Regional, small-scale farms have an important role to play in regional food security.

Small-scale famers who are still struggling to get a business going can suffer from poverty. Many do not have health insurance, retirement plans, or savings. But they often end up on the front lines fighting hunger and food security.

Small Scale vs. Affordability

Farmers’ markets have pressed for SNAP and WIC benefits to be redeemable at the markets, and this has helped them get established in poorer neighborhoods. But there is a distinct tension between small scale and affordability.

“On the one hand you have small-scale farmers who need to maximize their profit on everything they grow because they are small scale,” said Stephenson. “On the other end, you have a food insecurity issue. You have people who don’t have a lot of money to spend on food.”

The farmers are trying to get their food broadly distributed by starting SNAP-funded CSA shares, and many donate generously to gleaners and food banks. But the burden is not the farmers’ to shoulder.

“It’s a national food policy issue that took us here, took us to where food is cheap, so that’s what has to change,” Stephenson said. “We subsidize farming at a scale that is unnecessary, and then we’re stingy when it comes to taking care of people who are having a hard time feeding their families. To me, the solution would be having those families making the decision of what food they want to buy rather than having lobbyists decide what crops are going to be subsidized.”

Corvallis’ Tireless Gleaners

Locally, there are 7,900 gleaners who are members of 14 different non-profits. Each week, these people work in the community for their food. They collect it from local stores and farms, and they work at the Food Share redistributing bulk frozen food into smaller shares. They deliver it to “adopted” members who cannot work because of disability or age.

The motivation to invite gleaners onto their property is clear for some farmers. Stephenson noted that it is simply the right thing to do. In 1977, Oregon introduced the Crop Donation Tax Credit that incentivized farmers who used gleaners. It gave a credit equal to 10 percent of the wholesale value of the crop, and in 2001 it was revised to cover crops that were already harvested. But the program—and an important incentive for farmers—ended in 2011.

The Next Steps

Besides local farms and the Food Share, there are additional resources available for hungry families.

Anne Hoisington noted that “Oregon has one of the highest rates of SNAP participation in the US—in other words, a large number of people in Oregon who are eligible for the program participate. This has helped mitigate the problem of food insecurity in Oregon (at one time, we had the highest rate in the nation).”

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Oregon State University Extension, and Oregon Food Bank are also providing critical help for hungry families.

With such impressive numbers, it might seem that the situation is under control. There are agencies that work to help the hungry, after all, and they are handing out millions of pounds of food.

But a 2011 report showed that Americans eat just about one ton of food per year—per person. Even with the massive distribution in Linn and Benton counties, local people are still saving, cutting, and watching how much they eat. And they cannot count on eating high quality, nutritionally dense foods each day.

There is work to be done.

I asked Gibson why community members should care that others in the community are food insecure. He paused for a long time and then told me it made sense to care. But the next day, he sent an email. He had thought about the question some more.

“Are we comfortable knowing other people’s kids are going hungry? That seniors who are on their own with limited resources are malnourished because they can’t buy the food they need? Do we really think it’s ‘sink or swim’ and people trapped in a cycle of poverty are just lazy and unmotivated?” he wrote.

Gibson continued, “Healthy eating opens up endless possibilities for people facing emergency situations—or for people trying to acquire the education and skills to support themselves in the long run.”

Hunger by the Numbers in Linn and Benton Counties

Linn-Benton Food Share distributes: 47,000 food boxes; 270,000 meals at soup kitchens and shelters

Individuals served by emergency food boxes: 164,919

Meals served at emergency sites: 269,881

Pounds of food donated by local businesses and individuals: 2,566,278

Volunteer hours at Food Share member agencies: 198,109

For every $1 donated, the Food Share can donate 15 pounds of food

37 percent of individuals receiving food assistance are children

Figures provided by Linn-Benton Food Share and reflect data gathered between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012


By Bridget Egan