About the cover
Cover photograph by Diane Beals of Salem.  Beals owned and operated a portrait studio for 12 years in the downtown Salem area. It is in the last 4 years she closed her studio to focus on street/documentary photography. Beals has spent considerable time with Salem’s homeless population, and has worked closely with the Alzheimer’s Network of Oregon documenting residents in Salem and surrounding areas.
Diane can be reached at dbealsfoto@gmail.com or www.bealsfoto.com 

Agencies that provide food assistance to people in Marion County say that more than ever are hungry, and that huge numbers of these are children.  Thousands of area residents are involved in getting food to the hungry through food pantries, community agencies and the schools, but is there a more permanent solution?

What are the numbers?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 65,000 people in Marion and Polk counties are living in poverty.  In Marion County, 17.3% of the population lives below the poverty level.

Marion-Polk Food Share’s recent Annual State of Hunger Report noted that one in every five local households ate from an emergency food box in the past year and 47,000 individuals each month.  This includes an average of 16,000 children per month.

But even these sizable figures don’t include all the hungry, says Rick Gaupo, President and CEO of Marion-Polk Food Share.  “The numbers don’t track those we don’t serve because either the pantry ran out of food or the individuals didn’t know how to find our services.”

Feeding America, the national food bank, has determined that 24,020 children (29%) in Marion County are “food insecure,” meaning they do not have access to adequate quantities and quality of food on a daily basis.

Of the 1,750 area homeless counted in January 2013, according to Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA,) 31% ate only once a day or less.

“The face of hunger is varied, and it can’t be stereotyped,” says Eileen DiCicco of Marion-Polk Food Share.  “Hunger affects a cross-section.  A middle-income family who has had a job loss, or a provider ill, in the hospital or dead – finds that suddenly there’s no income.  They can become a food box recipient very quickly.”

Where can people get food?
Sources of food for area hungry include, preeminently, Marion-Polk Food Share, which uses a network of nearly 100 charities that distribute food boxes and meals to thousands of residents daily.

MWVCAA operates several programs to help feed the hungry, including Community Action Head Start which assists 77 children and their families every day, ARCHES which serves approximately 50 lunches daily and Head Start which provides meals for 848 school-enrolled children on school days.

Salem-Keizer School District feeds thousands of young people as well.  District figures show that in November 2013, 64% of elementary school children received free and reduced lunches.  Some schools had much higher numbers; ten of the District’s 44 elementary schools provided more than 80% of attending children free and reduced food last month.  For McKay High the number is more than 76%, and for North High it’s nearly 78%.

Overall, in November, 59.6% of the 40,669 enrolled in the SKSD – 24,225 children – needed free and reduced food benefits to keep from going hungry.

The hungry keep growing
In pre-recession 2007, an average of more than 5,000 local families a month sought emergency food boxes from the Food Share.  From July 1 through September 30 of this year, the monthly average was more than 9,600 families.  Oregon Food Bank, the network of 20 regional food banks in Oregon, has seen overall Oregon emergency food box distribution increase by 41% since 2008.

With numbers like these, “We have to be extremely efficient in getting food in and out the door to feed the hungry,” Gaupo says.

What other approaches exist?
The most common response to hunger is to get food to hungry people as quickly as possible.  This is understandable.  But organizations like Marion-Polk Food Share and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon point out that this is a short-term, not long-term, solution.

Simply feeding people immediately, says Hunger-Free Oregon, “does not address the underlying causes of hunger.”

“Say your job is to pull babies out of the river,” Gaupo says.  “At some point you’re going to want to go upstream and find out why they’re being thrown in.”

Though the Food Share, which Gaupo calls “a crisis-based organization” does an outstanding job responding to daily needs, he says that it cannot provide long-term answers; “only the community can do that.”

He compares society’s investment in public schools to its inconsistent investment in nutrition for all.

“We’ve agreed that everyone through the age of 18 should have assess to school and an education,” he says, “but we don’t have the same policy for food.  We leave that to the wherewithal of the individual, of family and circumstances.  We don’t take that on as much as a society.”

The community at large, Gaupo believes, must address the causes of hunger.  “For that part, the most a place like Marion-Polk Food Share can do is be an active voice in the conversation.”

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon believes hunger is both preventable and solvable.  It advocates for policies that 1) increase economic stability for people, communities and the state – such as the earned-income tax credit extended for 6-years during the last legislative session which will reduce the tax burden for low wage workers, 2) cultivate a strong regional food system – like the Senior Farm Direct Nutrition Program that allows more seniors access to fresh produce during summer months, and the Farm-to-School program which enables more schools to purchase Oregon-grown produce, and, 3) improving the food safety net – such as the Oregon Hunger Response Fund, which ensures that emergency food as available when needed.

Local examples of this approach
Marion-Polk Food Share is working on the prevention side as well.  It partners with Salem Harvest to glean food left in fields; the Food Share gets half what volunteers collect – and the volunteers are able to keep the remainder.  The Food Share also works with 53 community gardens that it has a hand in organizing and providing infrastructure for.  In cooperation with the JOBS Plus program, administered by the State of Oregon Department of Human Services, it provides experience at its front desk, answering phones, and on-the-job forklift training every afternoon, allowing people to gain skills and experience that will help them find employment.

In another approach The Food Share’s new quinoa burgers are created by incarcerated youth in partnership with the Oregon Youth Authority.  “This provides vocational and job training for young people,” Gaupo says,  “Studies have shown that youth who are engaged in a beneficial activity are far more successful after incarceration.”

Successful reentry of young people and their families means less long-term reliance on emergency food services.