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Advocates share stories of hunger, hoping to sway Oregon lawmakers to support food aid bills

The U.S. Department of Agriculture donates tons of produce and other food to food banks in Oregon to feed low-income residents struggling to put food on the table.
Courtesy USDA
The U.S. Department of Agriculture donates tons of produce and other food to food banks in Oregon to feed low-income residents struggling to put food on the table.

Dozens of advocates brought their personal tales of hunger to a state Senate committee hearing this week in hopes of persuading lawmakers to support proposals to give food aid to low-income residents who are excluded from federal benefits.

Kapiolani Micky, a community health worker at the Salem-based nonprofit Micronesian Islander Community and mother of six children, broke down crying as she recalled going without food to ensure her husband and children had enough to eat.

Cayle Tern of the Portland-based Asian and Pacific American Network of Oregon remembered being hungry growing up “more times than I like to remember” and relying on food at school to ease his hunger pangs.

And Aldo Solano of the Oregon Food Bank said his family worked the fields to nourish others but didn’t have enough for themselves because they were excluded from federal food benefits.

Senate Bill 610 would create a state program for undocumented immigrants mirroring the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. More than 170,000 people in Oregon receive SNAP benefits, which average about $270 a month per household. To qualify, individuals can earn up to $2,265 a month and a family of three can make up to $3,838 a month.

Senate Bill 856 would provide food aid to low-income residents from Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Under the Compact of Free Association, or COFA treaty, they can live, work and travel to the U.S. without a visa but are excluded from federal benefits. The treaty stems from the use of South Pacific countries for U.S. nuclear testing starting in the 1940s.

“This unique treaty is based on a couple of very important issues for our government,” Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena and a chief sponsor of SB 856, told the committee. “First is the nuclear legacy our government created for these island nations. Post World War II, we tested 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands: Four of their atolls continue to be radioactive and unfit for human habitation. Our country has a unique responsibility to these nations.”

According to Census data cited by the Legislature, Oregon is home to the third largest population of COFA citizens in the U.S. outside Hawaii – about 4,300 people. Senate Bill 610 would apply to about 62,000 people.

Both bills have wide support among immigrant groups, food organizations like the Oregon Food Bank and advocates for children and low-income residents. About 100 groups have signed onto the proposals.

SB 856 has bipartisan support. Besides Hansell, Democratic Sens. Mark Meek of Gladstone and Deb Patterson of Salem are chief sponsors and a bipartisan group of 19 other lawmakers have signed on, including the chair of the Human Services Committee, Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis. SB 610 only has Democratic support, with seven chief sponsors led by Sen. Wlnsvey Campos of Aloha, and 10 other Democrats backing the proposal.

“Food is a human right. Our freedom, our health, our ability to thrive all depend on access to food that is nutritious and culturally familiar,” Campos said. “Yet currently over 62,000 Oregonians are excluded from vital food assistance programs based on where they were born. This bill is one of our most significant opportunities this session to make concrete, immediate improvements to the lives of vulnerable Oregonians.”

A big consideration for lawmakers will be the price tag of the bills. The legislative fiscal office has not determined that, and backers don’t have an estimate either.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a vote, something that needs to happen by March 17 for them to continue in the legislative process.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience. 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.