Nov 6, 2023 - News

Local food needs are rising after years of improvement

A woman lifts a box of tomatoes onto shelving full of boxes of various produce.

A volunteer at the Lift UP food pantry in Southwest Portland loads produce onto a shelf. Photo: Emily Harris/Axios

The percentage of Oregonians who aren't sure where their next meal will come from has risen steadily since 2020 after a significant drop over recent years, new data shows.

Why it matters: Even with near-record low unemployment across the state, hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon are experiencing food insecurity.

Details: Food insecurity means that at times during the year, a given household couldn't afford enough food for one or more of its members, write Axios' Emily Peck and Kavya Beheraj.

  • Those with "very low" food security often skip meals.
Data: USDA; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: According to new USDA data, 11.2% of Oregon households experienced food insecurity over 2020-2022, and 4% were at the extreme end with "very low" food security, compared to the U.S. three-year average.

Context: Three-year averages — especially spanning the pandemic — paint only the big picture, Oregon Food Bank senior policy manager Matt Newell-Ching tells Axios.

  • Oregon Food Bank data shows a "massive spike" in food requests in the six months after the pandemic hit.
  • But as government cash payments and temporary, emergency food benefits kicked in, demand "kind of came back to earth," Newell-Ching said.

Yes but: When COVID-era benefits ended, the need for food started to rise.

  • "It was so frustrating" to see programs that helped alleviate hunger "just taken away," Newell-Ching said.

Flashback: Oregon struggled with hunger for years — in 1999 the state was shocked to find itself ranked first in incidents of "outright hunger" by the USDA.

  • A decade later, it remained in the top five worst states for food security.
  • Oregon changed that in part by signing up more people for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), says Mark Edwards, an Oregon State University professor and researcher who sits on the state's Hunger Task Force.
  • He also said the improvement in Oregon's hunger levels coincided with increases in the state minimum wage.

Threat level: Edwards, who regularly researches local data on hunger, says food insecurity hits people with limited means hardest, such as renters or single parent families.

  • In communities of color data often shows "rates that are almost twice that of the rest of the state," Edwards tells Axios.
  • Older people are hardest to get signed up for SNAP, Edwards says, with fewer than half of those eligible signed up.

State of play: At Southwest Portland's Lift UP food pantry, staff say rising inflation — including high housing costs — is increasing demand.

  • "Food costs more, everything costs more," CaSaundra Johnson, Lift UP development manager, tells Axios.

The intrigue: While waiting for the pantry to open last week, Alejandro Saucedo told Axios he appreciates the fresh food Lift UP provides, which is otherwise outside his means.

  • "The amount of produce, and how good it is," he said.

The bottom line: Newell-Ching says he expects food insecurity in Oregon to keep climbing unless policymakers increase the child tax credit and strengthen SNAP.

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