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Jan. 21, 2022

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20 percent of Clark County residents needed food assistance in the last year

Advocates say support, caring key for those who need emergency food assistance

By , Columbian staff writer
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Portland residents Sarah Vernarecci, left, and Rachel Russo, right, tie bags of dog food during a volunteer shift at the Clark County Food Bank.
Portland residents Sarah Vernarecci, left, and Rachel Russo, right, tie bags of dog food during a volunteer shift at the Clark County Food Bank. Photo Gallery

One in five people in Clark County accessed an emergency food network in the past year.

This means about 110,000 people in Clark County are hungry and without access to food. The statistic is not out of the ordinary — it’s the same as the state and national average of food insecurity, which is defined as not having enough consistent access to food to live an active and healthy life.

In the shadows of one of America’s most food-centric holidays, many people are feeling particularly drained by their circumstances.

“The physical need is the same but the need to feel love and connection shared with food is heightened,” said Alan Hamilton, Clark County Food Bank president.

The Clark County Food Bank distributes eight million pounds of food — about 6.75 million meals — to nonprofits every year so they can have a greater reach in the area. There are 130 distribution sites operating from churches, meal sites, shelters and other independent nonprofit organizations throughout the county.

Meredith Herbst, Clark County Food Bank associate, said the food pantries do more than supply goods — they also provide a supportive environment meant to empower its customers. This is reflected in the physical layout of pantries, such as at the Community Kitchen, that were designed to look like a grocery store.

Herbst, who qualifies for food assistance and uses the pantries, said this reduces her discomfort and stress when accessing its resources.

“The ability to choose is an important component to a food pantry and is helpful for me,” Herbst said. “You have power in what you can control.”

Hamilton suggested that people can help address hunger by donating their time, food or money. Most importantly, they can continue the conversation and reduce the shame associated with being food insecure.

“Bring a message of care and compassion for people in the community,” he said, “and create a culture of dignity.”

FISH of Vancouver, a partner of the food bank, saw an increase of people needing food assistance, said James Fitzgerald, FISH executive director.

“During the holidays, people need extra help,” he said.

With more people accessing the pantry, it feels like supplies are beginning to dwindle, he said, but they do what it takes to provide food to the community. They buy more food and search for donations to meet community needs, which are easier to come by during the holidays.

However, it’s helpful to address food insecurity beyond holiday seasons, especially when considering the negative health impacts not having food creates.

People who are food insecure are more likely to report having lower health than those who aren’t, said Jane Lanigan, WSU Vancouver professor of human development.

“It has more of a pervasive effect than not having access to food,” she said.

Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are common adverse health impacts associated with food insecurity. However, there are a multitude of intertwining health issues linked to inadequate food access. For example, factors that contribute to stress, such as having a lack of support systems or balancing various bills, exasperates chronic diseases, Lanigan said.

Young adults, the elderly and marginalized people are at a higher risk of food insecurity, she said. Lanigan said Black and Hispanic parents, as well as single mothers in general are disproportionately affected.

Often, people must decide between paying bills or buying food. Lanigan and her research team found that food insecure parents had significantly lower health, as they would often take on the burden of hunger so their child could eat.

However, there is a silver lining to the pandemic.

“Inequalities that exist are at the forefront of the community, and it’s sparking a greater conversation around these issues,” Lanigan said.

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