Farm bill feeds hungry

January 24, 2008 03:01 pm

Lines stretched longer this holiday season. We don't mean in shopping areas, we mean at our local food pantries. With less food available and so many people needing help, it was a tough holiday for many Oregonians.

Meanwhile, the farm bill — a bill that would make a big difference for those struggling to put food on the table — is slowly making its way through the U.S. Congress. The farm bill reauthorizes two vital nutrition programs for hungry Americans: The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Food Stamp Program.

Roughly 170,000 Oregon households can't afford adequate food. That means children living in those households — more than 150,000 of them — don't always eat three meals per day. How can children reach their full potential if they don't have enough to eat? In the areas our food banks serve, each month more than 1,800 households receive emergency food.

If those numbers didn't bother you, they should.

Too many Oregon families struggle to put food on the table. As a result, thousands of our neighbors are coming to our food pantries for help: young and old, male and female, and from many different backgrounds. Most work in low-wage jobs that don't pay enough to support a family. Others have disabilities that prevent them from working or are senior citizens on a fixed income. They're grateful for the help and for the kindness of the volunteers that staff our local pantries, soup kitchens and allied agencies.

Unfortunately, we can't provide nearly as much help as we used to. The federal government has cut back dramatically on the amount of agricultural commodities distributed to emergency food banks across the country. The Oregon Food Bank Network has experienced a severe decline in these commodities. Since 2004, TEFAP commodities for Oregon have gone from almost 12 million pounds a year to just 5 million.

By ourselves, we simply can't handle the large-scale, long-term problem our region faces when thousands of our friends and neighbors can't afford enough to eat.

That's where food stamps come in. According to the 2006 Food Stamp Participation Report recently issued by Oregon Food Bank and the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force, more than 425,000 Oregonians receive food stamps each month to help them buy food — more than 60,000 in Eastern Oregon alone. In addition, more than 20,000 eastern Oregonians qualify for the Food Stamp Program but do not participate. This successful program is this nation's first line of defense against hunger. Food stamps not only benefit participants, they also help the communities where benefits are spent. The Food Stamp Program brought more than $64.5 million into eastern Oregon, supporting businesses and jobs in the region. By increasing participation to all those eligible, we could boost our economy an additional estimated $15 million. That's quite an economic stimulus package.

Food-stamp benefits average just $1 per person per meal — so low that many families tell us their benefits run out before the end of the month. Moreover, food stamps will keep shrinking in value until Congress acts.

The farm bill currently before Congress would strengthen food-stamp benefits and boost emergency food. The Senate recently passed its version of the bill. But the bill still faces final hurdles.

Congress must ensure a farm bill with strong funding for important nutrition programs makes it to the President to sign into law. New investments in these programs will provide real help to people who need it. Otherwise, for millions of Americans struggling with hunger, including thousands right here in our community, the New Year won't be happy at all.



Carmen Gentry is food bank manager at Community Connection in La Grande. Paula Chavez is community services manager at CAPECO Food Share in Pendleton. Peter Lawson is branch coordinator at Southeast Oregon Regional Food Bank in Ontario.