Lush, green, fertile. Oregon is a land of plenty. A decade ago, when the USDA reported Oregon ranked among the highest in the nation for hunger and food insecurity, many did not believe it.
Bruce Weber and Mark Edwards were among the puzzled. How could it be that many Oregonians were failing to meet their basic food needs when the poverty rate for Oregon was merely average?
“It hooked us,” said Weber, director of the rural studies program at Oregon State University. While state legislators argued about the numbers, Weber and Edwards set out to learn how the USDA had measured hunger.
The data showed that more people in Oregon than in most other states agreed with statements such as: “We couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals,” or “I lost weight because there was no money for food.” The survey asked 10 questions (18 for households with children). Three positive responses classified a household as “food insecure” and more than five (or more than seven for households with children) indicated a household had very low food security—commonly known as hunger.
Edwards, an associate professor in sociology at OSU, and Weber looked closely at the questions, how they were asked, and who was interviewed. Were the people surveyed representative of the state? Their answer was yes. But then, who are these people and why are they hungry?
“A reaction that some express about hunger is that these people choose unwisely,” Edwards said. But do Oregonians make poor decisions more often than other people? “Unless you have a theory about how nutty Oregonians are, it doesn’t make sense.”
Others suggest that cultural problems such as methamphetamine use are to blame for high hunger in Oregon. Edwards points to a time when hunger rates went down after a successful campaign to increase enrollment in the food stamp program. “It’s hard to imagine methamphetamine use went down,” he said. “Culture just doesn’t change that fast, but economics does, as we’ve all experienced lately.”
According to the Oregon Food Bank, the number of requests in Oregon for emergency food boxes for the last half of 2008 was 14.7 percent higher than in the same time period in 2007. Some counties have seen devastating increases, such as Clatsop (40.4 percent) and Harney and Malheur (36.6 percent).
“Some people coming to the food pantries were previously food donors,” said Sharon Thornberry, an Oregon Food Bank community resource developer. “So who’s hungry? It can be anybody at this point.”
The Benton County Food Security Task Force wanted answers and hired OSU anthropologists Joan Gross and Nancy Rosenberger to probe myths about who suffers from hunger in Oregon. The two gathered details from 79 low-income households in the rural areas of Adair and Alsea.
Although one description cannot fit all of the hungry families in Oregon, Gross and Rosenberger found that most of the people they talked to did not come from generations of poverty.
“Several people had middle-class jobs and then—kaboom—a health emergency plummeted them into food insecurity,” Gross said.
Although food would normally be an essential item, for families in crisis sometimes it cannot be. “You have to pay utilities or your electricity gets shut off; if you don’t pay your mortgage you lose your house. But food you can always squeeze. And that’s what we saw—food as a flexible expense,” Gross said.
“A lot of hungry people have jobs,” Edwards said. “If you look at the households with very low food security, 90 percent of them are employed.”
Unemployed families rarely sit around waiting for handouts, the researchers found. Gross was stunned by the amount of work one woman did as the volunteer coordinator for a local gleaning group—gathering unsalable items from grocery stores, bakers, farmers’ markets, and farm fields. “She worked more than 40 hours a week just picking up food here and there,” Gross said.
Some families take care of foster children or others who need help. One family took in 23 people over the years. Most would rather support themselves than accept government assistance. And it was less shameful to rely on a social network for help—a meal at a relative’s house or a ride into town by a neighbor—than dependence on the food pantry.
Sharon Thornberry has the perspective of once being homeless and now works with low-income families with the Oregon Food Bank. Thirty years ago, when she hit rock bottom, she said it was still possible to come out of poverty.
“It’s not that simple anymore, it takes a lot more money, especially here in Oregon. In the 1950s and 60s one minimum-wage job, not two, would support a family of four at about 110 percent of the cost of living. Now you’re lucky if two minimum-wage jobs come close to even 60 or 70 percent of the real cost of living,” she said.
For the OSU scientists, all part of the Rural Studies Program, there are still mysteries to solve.
They wonder whether the seasonality of jobs in Oregon plays an important role in the state’s high food insecurity rates. And although boosting enrollment in food stamp programs worked for a while, it’s not enough, they maintain, and only structural economic changes will make a difference.
“Ultimately, we have to ask if we are the kind of society that we want to be. If not, what can we do to make us all collectively better off?” Weber said.