Food insecurity in Oregon is a problem; the Farm Bill in Congress could make it worse

May 29, 2018By Janet Bauer

[This commentary first appeared in The Portland Tribune.]

Oregon, like the nation as a whole, has witnessed multiple years of economic growth and declining unemployment. While that would seem like a recipe for improved conditions across the board, that's not what we're seeing.

A case in point: food insecurity. Even as the economy has picked up, Oregon shows no real progress in reducing the share of Oregonians struggling to put food on the table. That's bad news, especially because Congress is threatening to undermine the most important source of food assistance in the nation.

The human cost of food insecurity is profound. Food insecurity fundamentally undermines physical and mental health. It particularly harms children, who additionally suffer greater rates of birth defects, developmental delays and lower educational outcomes.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy recently crunched the numbers on how many Oregonians are struggling to put food on the table. In the three-year period from 2014 to 2016, some 527,000 Oregonians suffered from food insecurity, meaning numerous times over the period they did not know where their next meal was coming from or went hungry. To put that in perspective, that's about the same number of Oregonians who live in the cities of Eugene, Salem, Beaverton and Bend, combined.

With about one in seven Oregonians food-insecure, Oregon ranked 14th-worst in the nation.

These days, food insecurity is not just a problem for people living below the poverty line. Our study found that nearly a third of the Oregonians who are struggling to find enough food to eat made too much money to qualify for federal food assistance, a level that stands well above the federal poverty line. This indicates that, even in the midst of a long economic expansion, many working families are under severe economic pressure.

One of those pressure points is the cost of housing. Oregon has seen a rapid rise in rents, as well as in home prices. There is a good reason why many have declared housing in Oregon to be in a state of crisis. Many families now have to make tough choices about whether to pay the rent, keep the lights on or buy food.

Food insecurity is the canary in the coal mine of household economic distress. For cash-strapped families, food often is the first area to sacrifice. Better to reduce meals than lose the house.

For families who do qualify for federal food assistance, life could get more difficult if congressional efforts to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program succeed. SNAP is the nation's first line of defense against food insecurity. The program now serves more than 600,000 struggling Oregonians.

Besides cuts to the program, some in Congress are pushing to create layers of paperwork and impose ineffective requirements to receive assistance. Experience shows these would only become barriers for people needing relief.

Ultimately, such changes to SNAP would increase food insecurity and suffering in Oregon.

The first attack on SNAP, fortunately, failed when the Farm Bill went down to defeat in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 18. But the fight is far from over. We can expect attempts over the next few months to pass the same or similar legislation that would enact draconian cuts to the nation's food assistance. For the sake of our struggling families, Oregonians ought to insist every member of our congressional delegation oppose each of them.

At both federal and state levels, the conversation should be about investing in the nutrition of our people. We also need to take steps to relieve the economic distress of working families, including addressing the lack of affordable housing.

The economic growth of recent years is cold comfort to the many Oregonians struggling to feed their families. Oregon and the nation can and should do better.