Oregon's Policies Increase Access To Food, But Can't Solve Hunger Problem

Jan 12, 2015

Nearly 15 years ago, Oregon had the highest rate of hunger in the nation. The state changed a number of policies to try to help. But the percentage of people facing hunger today is nearly as high as it was in 2000. In this series, we talk to Oregonians who struggle to put food on the table, and look at programs that provide support. Amanda Peacher reports on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Tiffany Warner eats dinner at home with her two daughters in Bend.
Credit Amanda Peacher / OPB

There’s a good chance you know someone in Tiffany Warner’s position. Like one out of every five Oregonians, she receives SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.
Warner: I’m 30 years old, I have three kids and I work part-time at Goody's Chocolate downtown.

Tonight she's serving mac and cheese and pizza bagels to her family (EE: changed to make the sentence active). Warner used her SNAP benefits to buy ingredients. She can’t imagine how she’d feed her family without that $500 monthly support.  
Warner: I don't even know. That would suck. It would really suck.
Statistically, families like hers are more vulnerable to being “food insecure,” or hungry. The USDA determines food insecurity by a number a measures, including whether households run out of food, or whether people went without eating for more than twenty-four hours. About fifteen percent of Oregon families were "food insecure" last year.
Warner: Being a single parent I think it makes it super hard.
According to the USDA, households headed by single moms experience the most food insecurity of any group in Oregon.
When Warner applied for SNAP benefits, it was easy. But that might not have been the case a few years ago.
In 2000 Oregon had the highest rate of hunger in the nation. This is then-Governor Ted Kulongoski, back in 2003.
Kulongoski: When 50,000 children everyday go to bed not having eaten a meal in the last 24 hours, that is not the Oregon I know.
Kulongoski convened a task force to address the crisis. Patti Whitney-Wise, director of Partners For a Hunger-Free Oregon, was involved from the start.  
Whitney-Wise: One of the areas that we had heard from the food bank that was of concern is that people coming to get food boxes were having a hard time getting food stamps.
So Oregon made it easier. The state required fewer reports and made the application user-friendly. It hired outreach workers across the state to educate people about SNAP.
Whitney-Wise: That’s probably one of the biggest success stories over the years.
Today, Oregon ranks second in the nation for SNAP participation.  So most Oregonians who are eligible for SNAP, get the benefit.  And before the recession, hunger decreased. The primary reason?
Whitney-Wise: Getting all those additional families onto the food stamp program.
Again, Patti Whitney-Wise.
So, do Oregon’s policy changes add up to fewer people at risk of hunger?
Patti Whitney-Wise believes there are fewer kids going to bed with empty bellies today than there were in 2000. The Oregon Food Bank Network added 130 new food pantries since then.
But she says SNAP and food banks aren’t long-term solutions to poverty.
Tiffany Warner says it’s hard for her to accept that she needs SNAP or the occasional food box.
Warner: It's nice that those things are there but I feel like I'm taking away from people who need it more than I do.
Like we’ve gone and we’ve helped cook dinners at the Bethlehem Inn and donated stuff to needy families. And it’s like, now I'm now one of those needy families. It's just kind of hard to I guess accept that.
Oregon no longer has the ranking as the state with the highest rate of hunger. The state now ranks seventeenth. But that’s because other states are now worse off when it comes to hunger.
Copyright 2015 OPB