Regional food bank reports record demand

Millionth box given away as chronic unemployment grows

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

Updated: September 30, 2011, 11:36 PM

 

The Oregon Food Bank Network, a regional supplier of food for the needy that includes the Clark County Food Bank, has set an unhappy record: More than 1 million emergency food boxes distributed in one year.

From July 2010 to June 2011, the Oregon Food Bank Network provided 1,024,000 emergency food boxes to families in need in Oregon and Southwest Washington. That’s a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

“I have never seen the demand for emergency food this high,” said Oregon Food Bank CEO Rachel Bristol. “Joblessness is taking a tremendous toll on our families. Hiring has stalled, keeping (the) unemployment rate high. Low wages and limited benefits forced even people with jobs to seek emergency food. As a result, poverty has increased significantly.”

James Fitzgerald, manager of the Clark County Food Bank warehouse, said the same holds true in Southwest Washington. Every recent year has set a record for food distribution over the year before, he said.

“The need absolutely is greater than ever,” Fitzgerald said. “We saw a 5 percent increase in clients last year, and that’s over record numbers we’ve had in the past. We’re definitely giving out more food boxes than ever.”

He said the most recent rise was from 9,500 food boxes per month to as many as 10,000 per month now. Each box typically feeds a family of three or four, he said.

“I think people who had unemployment and other sources of help, all those things are starting to run out,” Fitzgerald said. “People are starting to hit rock bottom.”

Secretary-treasurer Bill Coleman said the Clark County Food Bank has seen an overall single-year rise of 10 percent in the pounds of food it distributes. It distributed 3.7 million pounds between July 2010 and June 2011, he said.

Food box distribution has increased 30 percent since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, according to the OFB Network, which now distributes almost a quarter of a million more food boxes annually than it did before the recession. In an average month, an estimated 260,000 people in Oregon and Clark County ate meals from emergency food boxes. Of those, almost 86,000 were children.

In addition, soup kitchens served 3.9 million meals during the past year. And 98,000 people received supplemental food through other OFB Network agencies and programs.

“We are seeing more clients and the agencies we serve are seeing more clients,” said Fitzgerald. “They are reporting more new faces and names, more clients they haven’t served before.”

Donations down

Meanwhile, donations from most sources have remained flat or declined somewhat, Fitzgerald said. The sole bright spot in the picture, he said, has been rising distributions of surplus food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which grew from 10 million to 18 million pounds throughout the OFB Network.

“That’s pretty much the reason we’ve been able to do more food than in the past. If it wasn’t for the USDA, we’d be down,” he said.

That’s what Fitzgerald and Bristol are bracing themselves for now.

“All indications are that within the next year, the USDA supplies will start to head back down again. Government funding streams are starting to be reduced,” said Fitzgerald.

“Stimulus funding has ended,” said Bristol. “And we anticipate a 30 percent decline in USDA commodities.”

Coleman added that the supermarket industry, which often donates its surplus or aging products, is getting tighter, too.

“The food industry is making fewer mistakes, and that affects us,” he said.

Coleman, quarterback of the volunteer-driven food bank gardens at Clark County’s Heritage Farm on Northeast 78th Street, noted that many people are growing their own donations. The food bank garden produced 85,000 pounds of food last year and is on track to produce as much as 100,000 pounds this year, he said. And, he noted, there are two big food drives in Clark County ever year: the nationwide mail carriers’ drive in late spring and the homegrown Walk and Knock on the first Saturday of every December.

All of which is wonderful, he said, but it’s still never enough.

“The Walk and Knock drive is always a resounding success. It’s 10 percent of a whole year, but it’s all gone in a month,” he said. Now that the Clark County Food Bank is building its own warehouse and headquarters, he said, there’s soon to be more food storage space than ever before. Construction appears to be on track for an early December grand opening, he said.

“We have a system to distribute that much food if we had it. If we could get a Walk and Knock every month, if we could knock on every door every month, we could end hunger in Clark County.”

To learn more about the Clark County Food Bank, visit http://clarkcountyfoodbank.org.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; Twitter: col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.