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Oregon's Policies Increase Access To Food, But Can't Solve Hunger Problem

Amanda Peacher/OPB

There’s a good chance you know someone in Tiffany Warner’s position. Like one out of every five Oregonians, she receives SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

Nearly 15 years ago, Oregon had the highest rate of hunger in the nation. The state changed a number of policies to try to help. But the percentage of people facing hunger today is nearly as high as it was in 2000. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP,  is one of the programs that supports Oregonians who struggle to put food on the table.

“I’m 30 years old,” Warner says, “I have three kids and I work part-time at Goody’s Chocolate downtown.”

Tonight she’s serving mac and cheese and pizza bagels to her family. Warner used her SNAP benefits to buy ingredients. She can’t imagine how she’d feed her family without that $500 monthly support: “I don’t even know. That would suck. It would really suck.”

Statistically, families like hers are more vulnerable to being “food insecure,” or hungry. The USDA determines food insecurity by a number of measures, including whether households run out of food, or whether people went without eating for more than twenty-four hours. About 15 percent of Oregon families were “food insecure” last year.

According to the USDA, households headed by single moms experience the most food insecurity of any group in Oregon. Warner attests to this: “Being a single parent I think it makes it super hard.”

When Warner applied for SNAP benefits, it was easy. But that might not have been the case a few years ago.

In 2000 Oregon had the highest rate of hunger in the nation. Governor Ted Kulongoski, after taking office in 2003, convened a task force to address the crisis.

“When 50,000 children everyday go to bed not having eaten a meal in the last 24 hours, that is not the Oregon I know,” Kulongoski said.

Patti Whitney-Wise, director of Partners For a Hunger-Free Oregon, has long been involved with efforts to battle Oregon’s hunger problem. She says, “one of the areas that we had heard from the food bank that was of concern is that people coming to get food boxes were having a hard time getting food stamps.”

So Oregon made it easier. The state required fewer reports and made the application user-friendly. It hired outreach workers across the state to educate people about SNAP.

“That’s probably one of the biggest success stories over the years,” says Whitney-Wise.

Today, Oregon ranks second in the nation for SNAP participation.  So most Oregonians who are eligible for SNAP, get the benefit.  And before the recession, hunger decreased.

The primary reason?  “Getting all those additional families onto the food stamp program,” says Whitney-Wise.

The state also increased the income caps for the program. A family of four that earns about $3,600 gross per month is now eligible. In Idaho, the same family would have to make less than about $2,600 a month to qualify.

“We were ready to react to being the hungriest state,” says Mark Edwards, professor of sociology at Oregon State University. 

So, do Oregon’s policy changes add up to fewer people at risk of hunger?

Whitney-Wise believes there are fewer kids going to bed with empty bellies today than there were in 2000. The Oregon Food Bank Network has added 130 new food pantries since then.

But, she says, SNAP and food banks aren’t long-term solutions to poverty.

Tiffany Warner says it’s hard for her to accept that she needs SNAP or the occasional food box: “It’s nice that those things are there but I feel like I’m taking away from people who need it more than I do.”

She explains: “Like we’ve gone and we’ve helped cook dinners at the Bethlehem Inn and donated stuff to needy families. And it’s like, now I’m one of those needy families. It’s just kind of hard to I guess accept that.”

Oregon no longer has the ranking as the state with the highest rate of hunger. The state now ranks seventeenth. But that’s because other states are now worse off when it comes to hunger. 

“We continue to have food insecurity rate a couple points higher than it was recession,” says Edwards. “There seems to be a new normal in terms of the level of poverty and the level of food insecurity in Oregon and across the U.S.”

Michelle Leis contributed to the reporting of this story.

Amanda Peacher is a 2014 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow. This story was produced with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship and the Journalism Center on Children & Families.

Copyright 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting