This time of year when many develop plans for fitness and weight loss, there is a significant portion of the population who go hungry and not from choice. According to the 2009 hunger report released Nov. 15 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oregon remains one of the five hungriest states in the nation. As part of AARP’s “Create the Good” initiative, the AARP Foundation has made alleviating hunger a top priority and we hope you can too.
This year, make a resolution to fight Oregon’s hunger crisis, urges AARP Oregon’s Director of Community Engagement Bandana Shrestha: “Volunteer with an organization or do something on your own, whether you have five minutes, five hours or five days. There are so many ways to make a difference.”
Unlike other issues like homelessness and health, hunger can easily go unnoticed. This year's report showed that one in five Oregonians reported that there had been times over the past 12 months when they didn’t have enough money to buy food that they or their family needed.
The ongoing recession has increased the number of individuals and families struggling to put food on the table, according to Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director of the Oregon Hunger Task Force and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. The state’s 10.5 percent unemployment rate, rising cost of living and growing population of seniors have all created more risk of hunger and food insecurity
“Food is often the only flexible item in a families’ budget and nowadays working a full-time job doesn’t always provide enough for basic living costs like groceries,” Whitney-Wise said. “The poignant stories for me are former volunteers at food banks who now have to come in for assistance themselves.”
Research shows that hunger affects more than just the stomach, Whitney-Wise added. When someone is hungry they are less likely to focus, for example making employees less productive. There are other medical effects for those with diet-related conditions. And then, of course, there are the psychological tolls.
“Food insecurity” ranges from those who cannot afford groceries at all to those who cut or skip meals, sometimes for days. According to the Oregon Hunger Task Force www.oregonhunger.org, 50 percent of SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program), formerly known as “food stamps,” users have jobs.
Nationally, nearly half of those ages 18 to 50 will access SNAP at some point and likely use a food distribution program. Seniors are actually the most underrepresented group, and in Oregon only 30 percent of those eligible utilize services. Find details on SNAP eligibility.
Other statistics are just as alarming: Between 2006 and 2008, the percentage and number of poor and near-poor elderly with very low food security more than doubled — from 4.7 percent to 10.1 percent, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
“Our seniors have worked their entire lives contributing to society, but now face a totally different scenario. The face of hunger isn’t just homeless, but the lady in the grocery store only buying food for her pet,” said Joan Smith, Executive Director of Loaves & Fishes Centers, The Meals-On-Wheels People.
Smith says that volunteers play a crucial role in addressing hunger. In Multnomah, Washington and Clark counties, the Loaves & Fishes Centers and Meals-On-Wheels programs have 8,200 volunteers serving 16,000 seniors ages 60+ at 34 meal sites, along with nearly 5,000 seniors receiving daily meal deliveries.
The day after Thanksgiving, AARP member and retiree Tommi Carter, 68, delivered 19 meals in her NE Portland neighborhood. Carter volunteers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in order to get out and try to help those in her community. While she also lives alone, she said, “it’s surprising how many seniors are out there on their own and struggling.”
Over the last 40 years, Portland has never had a wait list – you can sign up and receive a hot meal within 24 hours, Smith says. She doesn’t expect this to change since the organization is prepared to triple the number of meals served a day by 2030. But, they will need more volunteers to achieve this.
“It takes all of us to make a healthy community. It’s in all of our best interests to make sure we all have enough to eat so we can be as productive as possible,” said Whitney-Wise.
Resolve to Fight Hunger
While food assistance organizations always appreciate cash or food donations, here are some other hands-on ways to get involved too:
Volunteer with Loaves & Fishes Centers, The Meals-On-Wheels People.
Volunteer or learn more about the Oregon Food Bank, call 503-282-0555.
Find other local food or hunger relief organizations in your area, or to start a community garden, organize your own food drive, get the word out about SNAP, or get other tips and resources.
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