Food banks see dramatic rise in need

Area food banks are confirming what a new state hunger report states — that there's been a big jump in the number of men, full-time workers and two-partner households seeking food assistance.

"I've never seen it this bad in 30 years as a contractor," said Roy Wise, 52, as he picked up a week's worth of food at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank Friday. "I just got on Food Stamps (now called SNAP), but it's only $120 a month, and that's gone. They say the recession is over, but not for us."

The study from Oregon State University researchers, "Newly Poor in the Great Recession," compares first-time food stamp users in the recession year 2009 and in 2005, a better year for the state's economy.

The report shows:

  • The number of men on SNAP went up 75 percent, mainly from layoffs in manufacturing and construction.
  • Twice as many two-partner households are getting food assistance.
  • A 95 percent jump in the number of people getting assistance who had been working full-time before they got help.
  • Although the number of households headed by single women outnumbered those headed by two adults, the study reported the number of two-adult households going on food stamps was 50 percent greater in 2009 than in 2005, while the number of single-female households was up by 37 percent.

"This report shows that the Great Recession has affected all kinds of Oregon families, even those once thought to be immune to economic turbulence," said Suzanne Porter, lead author of the report.

At the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, a steady stream of the working poor filled boxes amid what manager Susan Harris called "a growth in demand that's so extreme, so huge, it went up 42 percent (this year), with five to seven new clients a day.

"We're concerned about what we're going to do," she said.

In response to the worsening food crisis, a coalition of community partners, food providers and a dozen local and regional foundation grantors have been meeting since the first of the year to plot strategies for meeting spiraling food demand amid persistent joblessness, said Philip Yates, nutritional program director for ACCESS Inc. in Medford.

The foundations, including Meier Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation, Asante Foundation, Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation and others, are "committed to help solve hunger" and have asked for strategies to be presented by the end of the year, said Yates.

Some ideas, he said, include expanding food pantries into Eagle Point and Phoenix and adding one in West Medford, and expanding ACCESS' three vegetable gardens to grow from 40,000 to 60,000 pounds a season.

ACCESS figures agree with the OSU report, said Yates, noting the agency gave out 36,000 food boxes in 2009-10, about the same as the year before. But in that time, the size of the households eating the food climbed from 2.3 people to 3.1 people, meaning "people are moving in together to save costs."

The economy, said contractor Wise, has changed dinner "drastically."

"We used to make fancy meals, but now there's a lot more spaghetti, canned or in packages, and we have smaller portions," he said.

His domestic partner, Simone Hillman, an unemployed radiologist, said, "We don't eat the foods we like anymore. There's not enough fruits and vegetables ... and coming here (to the food bank) can be humiliating. It's not fun."

Picking up a box at the food bank, laid-off forest worker Ryan Puckett said he and his wife have spent all their savings, and the box "fills the void" until he gets back to work after fire season.

"I'm not angry or upset. One month ... we donate to the food bank and the next month we take from it," said Puckett. "There's light at the end of the tunnel."

The demand on the Ashland Food Bank could never be met without the Ashland Food Project, which picks up bags of food from homes every two months, said Harris.

"We'd have to go to every other month if not for them," he added. "Our 12 faith organizations are also huge."

The bank also gives a week's food to Ashland or Talent residents — enough to feed 1,500 people — once a month.

"We're setting the stage for harnessing the support and funding to sustain growth in our numbers over three years, suspecting the end of the recession could be four years out," said Harris.

"There's a lot of anxiety. People are very frustrated. They don't want to be here and they would jump at any employment opportunity."

Yates said the county's official unemployment rate may be 13 percent, but many people have stopped looking or are not registered so the figure is actually much higher.

"We may not have seen the worst yet. A lot of people's unemployment benefits ran out in the last few months," said Yates. "We're doing outreach to previously working people who've never come here before and don't know where we are. Half the people we serve just aren't making it and paying their bills."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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