ashland.news
February 22, 2024

Hunger on the rise in Oregon after downward trend before the pandemic

One proposal by lawmakers and advocates would expand the free meals program in Oregon to more schools. Salem Reporter file photo by Rachel Alexander
January 29, 2024

Lawmakers have several proposals to stem hunger and help low-income residents

By Lynne Terry, Oregon Capital Chronicle

A quarter of a century ago, Oregon had one of the highest rates of food insecurity and hunger in the country. By 2019, the situation had greatly improved, and rates in the state dipped below the U.S. average.

Then the pandemic hit, and rates rose again. The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that about 11% of Oregon households are food insecure, struggle to have enough to eat and often have to choose between paying for rent, prescriptions or groceries. That means that 186,000 households, or 463,000 people, in Oregon have a problem securing enough food.

“We were making great progress in reducing food insecurity until the pandemic hit and progress reversed somewhat and is likely continuing this sort of unhealthy upward trend,” Mark Edwards, a professor at Oregon State University who studies food insecurity, said at a news conference last week.

The 2023 data is still being compiled, but he said the situation appears to be getting worse.

“I am hearing from our colleagues who provide emergency food that there remains extremely high and growing demand for emergency food assistance throughout the state,” Edwards said during the news conference.

With hunger growing, food advocates and a group of lawmakers on the Oregon Hunger Task Force called last week for the Legislature to enact in the upcoming session a number of measures to address hunger and the plight of low-income residents. The task force, which was created by the Legislature, is especially keen to get lawmakers to approve bills that would help students financially and help stem hunger among children.

From “Food Insecurity in Oregon During the COVID Public Health Emergency,” December 2023, by Mark Edwards and Julian McElhaney

That focus partly reflects the latest hunger data published by Edwards and a colleague last month. Their report shows that people of color, especially Native people and Hispanics, struggle more with hunger than white people, and that Asian Americans have the lowest rates of all. Among households, single mothers have the highest rates of food insecurity.

Renters also face hunger at a higher rate of hunger than those who own their homes, with about 20% of renters struggling with food insecurity compared with 5% of homeowners. And those without a high school diploma suffer much more from food insecurity compared with those with a bachelor’s degree or even a high school diploma.

From “Food Insecurity in Oregon During the COVID Public Health Emergency,” December 2023, by Mark Edwards and Julian McElhaney

There has been a huge improvement in the share of single mothers facing food insecurity in the past decade, and fewer renters scramble for enough food these days. But one category has failed to budge much: the urban-rural divide. About 20% of rural Oregonians have struggled to feed their families in recent years, about double the percentage of residents in urban areas. That surprised the researchers.

“The reasons for this divergence remain unclear, and the magnitude of this change in rural but not urban Oregon is surprising,” the report said. “If indeed these data accurately capture a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on rural Oregonians, this observation aligns with qualitative reports of the distinct challenges faced by rural social services during COVID, where volunteer, often older, staff at emergency food pantries were home-bound, or where schools struggled to deliver free/reduced price meals to children who would normally receive them in school may have lagged behind.”

Food advocates back several measures

Members of the task force, which was created by the Legislature and includes lawmakers from both parties, advocates and officials, hope the Legislature will approve $12.7 million to launch a free meal program in the summer for children in poor families. 

They also want the Legislature to expand school meals for all. Officials at a news conference said the state has enough money to allow hundreds more schools to serve free meals regardless of the student’s ability to pay starting next fall. But the rules need to change to align with federal requirements. 

And they’re asking lawmakers to approve $6 million through House Bill 4162, a student emergency needs package. Nick Keough, legislative director for the Oregon Student Association, said students are struggling to pay for textbooks, housing, transportation, health care and their living expenses.

“Financial aid programs and scholarships designed for low-income students fail to cover the bulk of their needs and do not reach the costs associated with attendance, such as food, housing, textbooks, transportation, etc.,” Keough said. “We are seeing a pretty dire situation, especially coming out of the pandemic.”

Other requests — from Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, the Children’s Institute and the Oregon Food Bank — include a $600,000 allocation for providers participating in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program and $10 million for the Oregon Food Bank.

The Legislature regularly allocates money to the food bank, which serves 21 regional food banks that work with more than 1,400 free food markets, pantries, meal sites and delivery programs. And the federal government supports the Child and Adult Care Food Program by paying participating child care centers, day care homes and adult day care centers to provide nourishing meals. Regional nonprofits participate by conducting three site visits a year, but that’s become untenable for many, especially in rural areas, according to officials from Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. They said a one-time infusion of cash would stabilize the program. 

That program and more just need a bit more help to keep going, said Angelita Morillo, policy advocate for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

“There are a lot of great structures that already exist in Oregon to address hunger-related issues,” she said. “A lot of them just don’t have the appropriate funding.” 

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years.

Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

Related Posts...

Ashland School Board taps current Rainier superintendent for top district job

Ashland School Board has selected Dr. Joseph Hattrick, the current superintendent of Rainier School District in the city of Rainier, Oregon, about an hour northwest of Portland, as its next superintendent. During a special online-only session, school board members voted 5-0 Tuesday evening to select Hattrick as new superintendent of Ashland schools, a position he will fill officially on July 1.

Read More »

Oregon permanent standard time bill survives after Senate splits

An effort to switch Oregon to permanent standard time will live to see another day after hitting a temporary roadblock on Tuesday when the state Senate split evenly on the bill. Supporters agreed to amend the bill to add a trigger clause clarifying that Oregon would only ditch daylight saving time if and when Washington and California do the same. 

Read More »

Latest posts

Ashland School Board taps current Rainier superintendent for top district job

Ashland School Board has selected Dr. Joseph Hattrick, the current superintendent of Rainier School District in the city of Rainier, Oregon, about an hour northwest of Portland, as its next superintendent. During a special online-only session, school board members voted 5-0 Tuesday evening to select Hattrick as new superintendent of Ashland schools, a position he will fill officially on July 1.

Read More >

Oregon permanent standard time bill survives after Senate splits

An effort to switch Oregon to permanent standard time will live to see another day after hitting a temporary roadblock on Tuesday when the state Senate split evenly on the bill. Supporters agreed to amend the bill to add a trigger clause clarifying that Oregon would only ditch daylight saving time if and when Washington and California do the same. 

Read More >

Ashland Creatives: When family history is American history

Ashland Creatives: It was 10 years after her father’s death, when she was 33 years old, that Barbara Hilyer first learned the family secret that she had African American heritage. She wrote a book about it, which she’ll discuss Monday, March 4, at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

Read More >

Explore More...

Ashland School Board taps current Rainier superintendent for top district job

Ashland School Board has selected Dr. Joseph Hattrick, the current superintendent of Rainier School District in the city of Rainier, Oregon, about an hour northwest of Portland, as its next superintendent. During a special online-only session, school board members voted 5-0 Tuesday evening to select Hattrick as new superintendent of Ashland schools, a position he will fill officially on July 1.

Read More>

Oregon permanent standard time bill survives after Senate splits

An effort to switch Oregon to permanent standard time will live to see another day after hitting a temporary roadblock on Tuesday when the state Senate split evenly on the bill. Supporters agreed to amend the bill to add a trigger clause clarifying that Oregon would only ditch daylight saving time if and when Washington and California do the same. 

Read More>
ashland.news logo

Subscribe to the newsletter and get local news sent directly to your inbox.

(It’s free)

Don't Miss Our Top Stories

Get our newsletter delivered to your inbox three times a week.
It’s FREE and you can cancel anytime.