COOS COUNTY — The number of hungry Oregonians has declined.

That’s according to the USDA's 2016 Household Food Security Report released last week, which stated that 14.6 percent of the state’s residents are struggling to put food on the table, down from 16.1 percent in 2013 to 2015.

This is the largest one year drop in food insecurity that Oregon has experienced in the last decade, according to a news release from the Oregon Food Bank.

However, the decrease isn’t necessarily reflected in rural areas and small towns.

In Coos County, 25 percent of households participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from 2011 to 2015, according to the Food Research and Action Center. 

SNAP offers food assistance to low-income individuals and families. 

Coos County has the third highest percentage of participants in the state, behind Malheur and Klamath counties, 27 and 26 percent respectively. 

By comparison, 20 percent of Multnomah County's residents participated in the program. 

Bryan Trendell, Coos Bay School District Superintendent, said the district’s free and reduced lunch numbers haven’t fluctuated very much in the last few years.

“I think rural Oregon isn’t necessarily a reflection of the entire state of Oregon,” Trendell said.

Currently, nearly 47 percent of Coos County’s students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

In the Coos Bay School District those numbers are even higher.

At Madison Elementary School and Sunset School, around 80 percent of the student body has free and reduced lunch. At Blossom Gulch Elementary School and Marshfield High School those numbers are closer to 60 percent.

Trendell said rural Oregon’s numbers have stayed the same and even worsened in some cases. However, he said the recently-released data is encouraging.

“When we see it (numbers) come down there’s always hope that our numbers will come down a bit,” Trendell said.

Matt Newell-Ching with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon said there’s an increasing amount of families who need additional support.

“During this economic recovery, many of the jobs that are coming back are lower wage jobs,” Newell-Ching said, “The best solution to hunger are family-wage jobs and a strong economy in which income earners can earn enough to put food on the table.”

He said SNAP has an impact on a multitude of people, not just those receiving the benefits.

“That not only helps that family it also means more jobs at grocery stores, it means more income for farmers,” Newell-Ching said.

One in six Oregon residents participate in SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A majority of those who participate are in the service industry, like cooks and home health aides.

“Invariably the workers who are receiving SNAP are the ones who are taking care of us,” Newell-Ching said.

While Oregon’s decreased numbers are encouraging for organizations attempting to combat food hunger in the state, the numbers are still high compared to the national rate of 12.3 percent.

“Oregon still has the highest rate of hunger in the Northwest,” Newell-Ching said, “For a state that prides itself in having a bounty, that bounty is not being shared equally.”

He said families will forgo fruits and vegetables for cheaper alternatives. Beyond that, if faced with paying rent or buying groceries, most will choose to pay rent.

“We care a lot about people who have to choose between rent and food,” Newell-Ching said.

Myrna Jensen with the Oregon Food Bank echoed that sentiment.

She said those who are categorized as having low food security are households that have had problems getting food and opt for lower quality items.

“So it’s boxes of mac n’ cheese, versus being able to create a more robust meal,” Jensen said.

According to Feeding America, there were 10,310 food insecure people in Coos County in 2015.

Those in the “very-low food security” category are cutting meals multiple times per week because they can’t afford food.

Oregon’s rate of very-low food security, had a negligible decline from 6.6 percent in 2013 to 2015 to 6.2 percent in 2014 to 2016.

For Jensen, a lot of information is anecdotal, because it’s hard to quantify some of the aspects of food insecurity.

“We know a lot of the stuff that we’re getting it’s more anecdotal, because some of this data is hard to come by,” Jensen said.

Jensen said organizations like the food pantry have to combat false stereotypes about the SNAP program, previously known as food stamps.

“We find that most people who are on SNAP or who are using the food pantry, they have a job,” she said, adding that there are time limits for how long someone can use the program and eligibility has to be verified.

For her, people utilizing the program is a positive.

“We know our SNAP usage is really high in Oregon,” Jensen said, “That’s actually a good thing, because we know that means that a lot of people are getting food.”

The Oregon Food Pantry as well as Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon are concerned over talk of funding cuts to SNAP. 

“We are concerned with the threats to cuts that this could have a devastating impact on rural Oregon,” Jensen said, “We envision more stress on our regional food banks should a SNAP cut come through.”

Reach Saphara Harrell at (541) 269-1222 ext. 239 or by email at saphara.harrell@theworldlink.com

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