Charities work to address childhood hunger in Clark County

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

VOLUNTEERS WELCOME

• Clark County Food Bank: clarkcountyfoodbank.org

Write volunteer@clarkcountyfoodbank.org or call 360-693-0939.

• Share Vancouver: sharevancouver.org

Write volunteers@sharevancouver.org or call 360-952-8229.

Think about the last time you skipped lunch. A long meeting, a pressing task, no offramp, whatever.

Remember how cranky and scattered you became? Remember how your attention became focused largely on food — how and where to get it, how much and how soon?

Now imagine how it would feel if you couldn't count on any food at all — and if you had no control over that situation.

"How can we expect a child to care about math, about what two plus two is, when that child is hungry and their stomach hurts?" said Becky Parker, the assistant director of hunger response for nonprofit agency Share Vancouver.

Childhood hunger was Parker's piece of a panel presentation Tuesday about local poverty at the Vancouver Community Library. It was the second annual "Hungry and Homeless in Clark County: Get the Facts," held in conjunction with National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 17-23.

A recent community survey put food assistance at the very top of Clark County's list of pressing needs, according to Share program director Amy Reynolds.

And even if you tend to believe that the poor are reaping the rewards of their own irresponsibility, Clark County Food Bank Executive Director Alan Hamilton said, it's "pretty hard" to blame poor children for the hunger that prevents them from succeeding in school.

"It matters because brain development and the ability to concentrate" are definitely affected by poor nutrition, Parker said. Just imagine you are a child with no control over your ability to feed yourself — and no reason to hope for any improvement in that situation, she said. That's the real situation too many children find themselves in, she said.

How many? Twenty-four percent of all children in Clark County are "food insecure," Hamilton said — meaning they don't have access to safe, nutritious food. That's larger than the overall proportion of food insecure people in Clark County — 16 percent, he said. So children are disproportionately affected by hunger and by the problems of their parents, he said.

Parker said Share's weekend backpack program, sending provisions home from school with children, has been growing ever since it started. Parker said she expects to send 1,875 bags of nutritious food home to hungry families via 80 schools Thursday.

That number is only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of hungry children in Clark County who could use the extra food, she said.

Those children are carefully selected by the schools themselves — often based on behavior problems that are traced back to empty bellies, Reynolds said.

Recently she's been customizing some backpacks for families that have no functional kitchens — sending home microwave-safe bowls or just trail mix and fixings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

SNAP challenged

On Nov. 1, the national program known as food stamps — the real name is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — was reduced to pre-2009, pre-recession levels, Hamilton said. That translates to a cut of $11 a month for an individual and $36 a month for a family of four.

With those SNAP reductions, Parker said, 200 new families have recently been added to Share's backpack effort.

More reductions are expected when Congress passes a new farming and agriculture law, Hamilton added. The only question is whether the additional reduction will be small or large; the Senate has proposed a $4 billion cut to the program, while the House of Representatives has proposed $40 billion.

All of which will add up to a "progressive downhill" slide for SNAP, he said, as well as for the local food pantries and other hunger-response agencies "that are faced with greater and greater challenges to fill that gap." When their SNAP benefits have run dry, he said, needy people turn to those agencies for emergency help.

Kris Potter, her husband and their two teenage sons volunteered to accept this month’s “SNAP Challenge,” living on typical food stamps benefits — $4.50 per person per day, or $126 for the family for one week.

She said it wasn’t hard to do, but that’s because she’s a comfortable homemaker with free time, easy transportation, good health, planning and cooking skills, a habit of feeding her family from scratch and a vegetarian diet to boot. She didn’t have to contend with any uncertainty about money, employment, safety and shelter, she said.

“Getting food is only one issue,” she said.

Still, her family had to forgo desserts and snacks, she said. She bought only ingredients, nothing prepared. And it was definitely disconcerting, she said, to watch how the week’s modest pile of SNAP-limited groceries, which was all laid out on the counter, rapidly shrank.

"There was some fear and anxiety," she said. "It gave me an appreciation for the blessings I have."

More and better

The Clark County Food Bank supplies 30 smaller food pantries and other local hunger-response organizations, Hamilton said, and its goal is simple: "More and better." That is, more food and better-quality food for the growing number of people in need.

A couple of years ago the food bank moved out of cramped, leased warehouse space and into its own new building, expanding its ability to accept, store and redistribute food. Hamilton said 5.1 million pounds of food -- a record -- moved through the food bank in 2012.

He added a favorite point: "Love travels on food," he said. That is, hungry people who get fed feel their community's caring. And, even better, people who learn to cook via the food bank's nutrition education outreach programs feel more confident about their lives and their prospects for the future.

Food bank operations manager James Fitzgerald said his job is to find the food. He works with everyone from state food bank systems in both Washington and Oregon to 18 local grocery stores that provide good food that's past its expiration date, to local farmers and community gardeners.

A couple of parcels near the food bank's new home were vacant and unused, he added, so some food bank volunteers planted 2 acres of butternut squash there. So far they've reaped 45,000 pounds, he said.

"Not everybody has money … but some people have dirt," said Hamilton.