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  • 17 Sep 2014

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A new recipe to fight hunger

Oregon Food Bank pushes for education, more fresh produce

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Food Bank volunteer Lynn Shaker helps sort apples for donation boxes. Groups and individuals as young as six can sign up for two-hour shifts at the food bank, doing everything from sorting and repacking to leading gardening or cooking classes.  Susannah Morgan marvels at the shiny purple eggplants that hang on the vine, the bright rows of rainbow chard, beets, tomatoes and pole beans.

“I planted those,” she says, admiring the beans.

To Morgan, chief executive officer of the Oregon Food Bank, the beans represent more than just immediate sustenance for families. They represent not just the “food for today,” as she calls it, but the “food for tomorrow .... the kind that “helps get people out of the food line.”

Since Morgan assumed her post two years ago, the former head of the Food Bank of Alaska has helped shift Oregon’s food bank strategies in two new ways.

One is putting equal emphasis on the long-term solutions toward fighting hunger, such as by connecting people in need with classes in gardening and cooking healthy food on a budget.

The rows of beans she planted are part of the Oregon Food Bank’s expansive organic Learning Garden, adjacent to their warehouse at Northeast 33rd Drive. (Cooking classes start next month and gardening classes will begin in February.)

The food bank’s other new strategy is trying to boost the amount of fresh produce that is distributed to their recipients — from the current 10 million pounds (20 percent of their overall donations) to 15 million pounds (30 percent of donations) in the next five years.

Currently, its “recovered” produce — close to the expiration date, possibly misshapen but otherwise edible — comes from regular grocery store

donations. They also receive overflow from food banks

in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

And in past years there’s been an increasing amount of produce donated by local farmers and orchards.

Right about now there’s an abundance of donated seeded Hermiston watermelons, since the seedless variety are more popular at the store.

Last year the food bank helped push a new tax incentive into law that gives Oregon farmers a 15 percent tax credit for their food bank donations. Some lawmakers wanted it to be as high as 30 percent, like other states, but for now the food bank sees it as a victory.

The lettuce, apples, pears, onions, potatoes, berries and other fresh produce complement the wide array of canned and boxed food, frozen meat, dairy, bread and other items the warehouse sends to pantries across the region every day. Costco-style aisles of pallet items, crates, bins, refrigerator and freezer rooms hold about 4 million pounds of everything from YoKids smoothies to Pacific Foods free-range chicken broth to canned salmon and chunky stew.

“The work we do to get food out today is really important, but it’s not going to end hunger,” Morgan says. “It’ll end hunger with a small h, not with a big H. You have to do both.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Food Bank CEO Susannah Morgan says hunger is a logistical problem that can be solved by getting healthy food to the people who need it. There should be no food bank, she says. We could turn this into a co-op. How about an indoor farmers market?

Raising awareness

September is national Hunger Action Month, a campaign organized by the nonprofit Feeding America. The goal is to spotlight the hunger epidemic and rally people to help tackle it.

According to the latest data, 270,000 people access emergency food boxes each month. An estimated 92,000 Oregon children eat from a food box each month.

Oregon made headlines a few years ago as one of the hungriest states, as the recession hit people hard, but the numbers have since stabilized.

Still, the problem impacts all schools and neighborhoods across all regions and racial lines.

To get directly where the need is, the food bank recently started opening mini food banks at schools throughout the Portland area; there are now 14 in place at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Families appreciate it because they can pick out the food they need rather than receive items in a box, Morgan says. School officials like that it brings parents into the schools.

Elected officials in Portland and Beaverton, Multnomah and Washington counties took up the cause last week by issuing proclamations to recognize the month and taking their own “repack shifts” — dividing bulk items into smaller bags, to be distributed at food pantries throughout the region.

Social media has been a big part of the campaign (#hungeraction, #30waysin30days), and many local chefs offer special menu items or collaboration dinners to benefit the food bank.

At Lincoln restaurant on North Williams Avenue, chef/owner Jenn Louis is participating in Share Our Strength’s Hunger Action Month in September.

She’s donating a portion of the restaurant’s proceeds to the nonprofit’s No Kid Hungry campaign, which connects kids with nutritious food and teaches them and their families how to cook healthy meals.

It’s similar to the food bank’s Learning Garden and other organizations’ efforts, like Zenger Farms’ Healthy Eating on a Budget classes in East Portland.

Helping to end food insecurity is an obvious one for local chefs, Louis says, since they’re already thinking about the bigger picture: “We try to buy from really great family farms and businesses in Portland; I think every level (of the food system) has a part to play.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forklift operator Shunda Hwang moves a pallet of food at the Oregon Food Banks warehouse in Northeast Portland. The warehouse donated 86 million pounds of food -- equaling 1.1 million emergency food boxes -- to families last year.

Few, but better, calories

Back at the Oregon Food Bank, a staff of 140 and hundreds of volunteers buzz around like a mini city.

In the repack rooms on a recent morning, volunteers scooped a couple of pounds of bulk oatmeal into bags and sorted through bins of apples to bag the good ones and send the rest as feed to a local farm.

As pantries place their regular orders online, food bank workers retrieve them and get them ready at the loading dock for pickup. Formulas dictate how much fresh produce each pantry may receive.

The food bank’s offerings, over the years, have been getting healthier, reflecting the shift in research on hunger.

Experts used to believe it was critical to feed people in need by getting calories into their bellies through any source of energy.

Now research links hunger with obesity, and shows it’s better to eat fewer, but healthier, calories.

“It’s making us go, ‘Oh, OK, we can make choices in the food we distribute,’” says CEO Morgan. “Even if it means we distribute less.”

The food bank’s board of directors adopted a new strategic plan two years ago that set the goal to boost their fresh produce intake and gradually stop accepting food and beverages that had few nutrients.

That means less soda and junk food, more squash, kale, peanut butter and beans.

Looking to the future, advocates say the only way to eliminate hunger is by tackling its root causes.

The Oregon Food Bank is finalizing its legislative agenda for 2015, which will look for increased funding for the state’s Homeless Assistance Fund and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program.

“The number of people accessing emergency food service are on the cusp of losing their home or their kids and have had circumstances in their lives” that have led to their food insecurity, says Phillip Kennedy-Wong, the food bank’s public policy advocate.

The food bank also will ask lawmakers about the state’s commitment to the food bank system. The Oregon Hunger Response Fund is about $2.7 million over two years, Kennedy-Wong says.

Those funds help offset the cost of transporting food across the state to the 20 regional food banks. But the Oregon Food Bank relies on receiving just over 60 percent of its funds from the private sector, through food and cash donations, grants and other partnerships.

The state’s support is a small sliver of the food bank’s annual $200 million operation.

Morgan says that despite the huge awareness of hunger in the state, it hasn’t yet reached its tipping point.

But she has no doubt the state is on its way. “We’re talking about changing society,” she says. “It feels like a societal problem that is possible to change in my lifetime. Essentially, it’s a logistical problem. If we just got the systems right, we can actually make a difference.”

Report: Hunger on the rise in Oregon

New data released Wednesday reveals that hunger in Oregon is on the rise, contrary to experts' predictions.

According to the latest Household Food Security in the United States report, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 232,000 Oregon households faced food insecurity in 2011-2013.

That’s an increase of almost 28,000 households, compared to the previous year’s report.

"There's a real danger that hunger is becoming normalized," says Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of the nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. "Having our fellow Oregonians experience hunger isn't normal. We came close to ending hunger in the 1970s. To reach that point again, we need to work together to promote economic solutions to bring about lasting change.”

September being Hunger Action Month, "we want people to push back against the status quo," says Oregon Food Bank CEO Susannah Morgan. "One hungry family is too many. It will take all of us coming together to reverse and end this problem."

The USDA measures food insecurity every year through a series of 18 survey questions that ask U.S. households about their ability to obtain enough food for an active, healthy life for all members.

This year about 93,000 households in Oregon suffered very low "food security" — also known as hunger — in 2011-2013.

That means they ate less, watered down food, skipped meals or sometimes went without food for entire days.

Last year about 87,000 household had very low food security.

Nationally, about 50 million people in the U.S. facing hunger, 16 million of which are children. That translates to one in six Americans.

To view the full report, visit: www.ers.usda.gov.

Farmers aim to double donations

Last Friday, a farmer in Polk County had an extra acre of corn he’d just harvested, and wanted to donate it to people who needed it.

So Joe Fitts of Wigrich Farms in Independence called his friend John Burt, executive director of the nonprofit Farmers Ending Hunger.

Since 2007, Burt and his board of directors have worked to connect growers and ranchers around the state with the Oregon Food Bank through their Adopt-an-Acre program, which covers the cost of processing fees in exchange for their donation.

Burt, who is based in Salem, quickly called the food bank and was told that their cooler capacity was full, but they’d scramble to do something to accept and quickly distribute the 20,000 pounds of fresh corn, still husked and super sweet.

“They’ll get some ice, cool it down until they can get it shipped out,” Burt says. “That’s a lot of sweet corn. That’ll make a huge impact right now to food boxes.”

Through the Adopt-an-Acre program, people may donate funds to help Farmers Ending Hunger get more fresh produce in the hands of the Oregon Food Bank, to be distributed to the 20 regional food banks around the state.

A $250 donation pays for one acre of food; $1,000 pays for four acres.

Last year was the organization’s biggest year yet, with nearly 2.5 million pounds of produce, meat and packages of pancake mix donated from farms. The goal now is to try to double that in the next two to three years, which jives well with the Oregon Food Bank’s goal to boost its fresh produce intake and distribution.

“I’m confident the market is there, but the infrastructure will be a huge challenge,” Burt says. He and food bank leaders and others will be sitting down soon to grapple with it.

For more: www.farmersendinghunger.org.

Charities reap Feast proceeds

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln restaurant, will donate a portion of the restaurants proceeds to fight hunger this September during Hunger Action Month.  It might seem ironic at first that in the midst of Hunger Action Month is Feast Portland, the four-day festival of Oregon’s bounty, involving chefs and foodies from here and across the United States.

The festival kicks off Thursday, Sept. 18, with its Sandwich Invitational at Director Park.

Tickets for the event are $95, which includes tastings from 14 top local and national chefs, as well as local breweries, wineries and distilleries.

It’s lot of indulgence, but that’s exactly why co-founder Carrie Welch created the event as a way to also give back to the community in a major way.

Net proceeds from all Feast events go directly to two organizations that fight hunger: Share Our Strength and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

Besides the obvious foodie-farmer-chef connection, battling hunger “is solvable,” Welch says, “which is why we decided to tackle this one.”

The No Kid Hungry campaign connects kids with food in tangible ways, through school breakfast and summer meals, and classes for low-income families in cooking healthy, affordable meals.

Share Our Strength makes grants to local programs, so some of Feast’s proceeds return to Oregon.

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon is the state’s lead on food insecurity policies, research and data, and services like school nutrition outreach and financial assistance for hungry families.

In Feast’s two years, they’ve raised about $99,000 for the two charities.

“Feast’s job is to give a bunch of different entry points,” Welch says. “If you’re buying tickets, you get a prompt to donate to the charities.” People get information about the charities through newsletters and social media.

At the festival, volunteers will be wearing orange — the national color of Hunger Awareness Month — with information about ways to fight hunger.

“It’s really about raising awareness,” Welch says. “If they’re cognizant it exists, that’s half the battle.”

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