August 18, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Some families would go hungry without the monthly box of food.

For foster parents caring for several children, monthly food boxes are a way to stretch the budget and provide nutritious meals throughout the month.

"We use the (Elgin) food bank every month," said Tammy Woolcutt, a foster parent from Elgin. "If we didn't have access to a food box, especially for canned goods and staples, it would be a lot harder."

Woolcutt and her husband, Ron, have four foster-children, ages 7 months to 5 years, and four of their own children, 9 1/2 to 16. They began taking in foster children about 18 months ago.

The family doesn't fall into the hungry category, but many families served by the Union County Food Bank would suffer real hunger without a monthly box of staples and canned goods. Many of those families are working families, said Community Connection's Carmen Gentry, food bank director.

Food box programs are important in Oregon. The state was ranked last week as No. 1 in the nation in the incidence of hunger and food insecurity — when families don't have resources to buy enough food. Gentry said the number of people who use the food box programs has risen by 8 percent over the past year. Food stamp use has also risen, with 2,825 Union County people receiving food stamps in June, according to state statistics.

"We see more and more families each year at the food pantries who are trying to make it on very little and just can't, in spite of their ongoing efforts."

Woolcutt said the foods offered at Elgin are nutritious.

"There are usually soups and macaroni and things that you can fix nutritious meals out of," she said.

Woolcutt knows the importance of good nutrition for children, and she's talented in turning rice and dried beans into a good meal. Many parents, however, are at something of a loss when faced with containers of dried beans or rice, and only a few nutrition classes are offered in Union County.

Gentry would like to see better information given to people who take food boxes. At one time, the Oregon State University Extension Office provided a nutritionist to teach classes for the food bank, but those are no longer available, Gentry said.

"We had a good turnout for those classes," she said. "If there is somebody who has the materials and knowledge to teach a nutrition class, we'd definitely be interested."

Gentry said research has shown that poor nutrition affects a child's ability to learn.

"Even moderate under-nutrition can have lasting effects," she said.

The Women, Infants and Children's program, known as WIC, offered through the Center for Human Development, appears to offer the most extensive nutrition education in the county.

Carrie Klee teaches two classes a month to families who qualify. WIC is designed to meet the nutrition needs of pregnant women and their children up to age 5.

"We introduce new foods such as humus and pesto," Klee said. "We try to encourage different foods. We try to get the moms to bring their favorite recipes, but we don't have much luck."

Tammy Woolcutt also uses WIC, and she said that WIC and the food box program "work together. They help out tremendously, and the WIC classes have been valuable."

There are four food box programs in Union County: Elgin, the Salvation Army, Neighbor-to-Neighbor Ministries and Shelter From the Storm.

"Many people in our county are struggling, just finding a full-time minimum-wage job," Gentry said. "Many of the working poor fall through the cracks and are unable to get the help they so urgently need."

Tammy Woolcutt finds each month's food box different.

"The only things that are almost guaranteed are rice, beans, peanut butter and powdered milk," she said. "Other than that, it can be anything — fruit, soup, vegetables."

One month, somebody had donated jars of marshmallow cream, and Woolcutt learned that she could make a treat for her kids by putting peanut butter and marshmallow cream on toast.

"The program helps a wide variety of people," Woolcutt said, "not only the needy, but the elderly, single people, foster parents, a wide variety of people. You don't have to be on welfare to use it."

Canned food drives usually begin in the fall, but people may donate food at any time. Gentry's office is at the Union County Senior Center on Albany Street.