In the community, Special Reports

CHILDREN OF POVERTY: Children in Malheur County going hungry as families struggle with income, issues

Every week, 15-year-old Kennedy made the five-mile drive past fields of onions and potatoes to the food pantry in the small community of Adrian. Her family of eight counts on her to bring food to the table. 

Inside, tables were lined with green-checkered table cloths. The tables held dried goods, bottles of shampoo and conditioner and boxes of face masks. People could choose from rows of canned foods on shelves and meats in large metal freezers.

Folks signed in on a sheet of paper and grabbed a cart, conversing with the volunteers while they got their groceries for the week.

This pantry helped about 40 families put food on the table.

But no more.

For Kennedy and others, that vital source of food is gone.

At the end of May, the Adrian Food Pantry closed. The pantry was asked to vacate the space because it will be used for a preschool instead. There are no other spaces where the pantry can run successfully, according to volunteer pantry manager Angie Sillonis. 

“I’m devastated,” Sillonis said. “This has really been hard.”

Kennedy is the oldest of her five siblings. On her trips to the pantry, she brought a friend because she suffers from social anxiety.

“This is where we get most of our [food] because we can’t really afford it because there’s so many of us,” said Kennedy on a recent trip.

Her parents both work, but they still need the extra support to feed their large family, which includes Kennedy’s grandmother.

About one in five kids in Malheur County were considered food insecure in 2022, according to the Oregon Hunger Task Force. Rachael Van Klompenburg with the Oregon Food Bank said they are seeing “the worst rate of hunger in a century.”

Food insecurity is when people do not have the means to get the food they need. For kids, it can be devastating. They have little control over their circumstances, sometimes facing an empty refrigerator and enduring an empty stomach. No one can function without food. 

Defining child poverty

Children who grow up in families enduring economic hardship can be impoverished by lack of life’s basic needs. They often do not have a stable supply of food, adequate and safe shelter, means for education or care for their medical and mental health traumas. As a consequence, children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is affected.

“If a child is physically or cognitively stunted at 2 years of age, they will never reach their full potential. Stunting can be due to a number of causes, including inadequate access to food, or frequent illnesses because of nutrient deficiencies,” said Josh Jorgensen, a professor teaching nutrition at the University of Oregon. “An inability to access essential nutrients can impair immune systems, leading to increased risk of short-term illnesses, and can put individuals at risk of chronic diseases if an inability to access healthy foods lasts for an extended period of time.” 

Among school-aged children, inadequate food can impair school performance, which can have both short-and long-term consequences.    

Lucas McManis, who recently graduated from Ontario High School, grew up in poverty. Food was scarce and bills were unpaid.

“They were very hush hush about the money and monetary situation. But what we were seeing is they would stop buying food. It was getting really bad with that. They were not buying food weekly anymore,” said McManis. “Our water got shut off for a brief period because they couldn’t pay the water bill. Our internet got shut off for a little bit because they couldn’t pay the internet bill.”

Adrian is considered a food desert, a place where a third of the population lives more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is somewhat ironic given that it’s in the middle of rich farmland that produces crops that feed the rest of the nation. Those crops are often harvested by the very people who rely on food banks.

Sillonis said that although there are three grocery stores within 12 to 15 miles, the nearest actual supermarket is in Ontario, 24 miles away. Sillonis said the pantry started serving people from outside of the community because of the pandemic. 

“I just have a really strong connection to this community. I was born here. I think it’s important to give back,” she said.

Angela Harris has been a volunteer at the food pantry for over a year. Before that, she was a regular patron for several years. Volunteering has become a way for her to interact with the community.

“It’s a really important thing in our community for many different benefits,” said Harris. “It’s more than just the food. It’s socializing, it’s seeing your neighbors. A real community.”

Azucenas Huitron and her 10-year-old daughter Ximena Robles have been coming to the Adrian Food Pantry since its opening in 2019. Robles’s favorite part of the visit is getting donuts. Huitron especially relies on the food pantry to provide healthy meals because her husband is the family’s one source of income.

“There’s times especially where there’s a family where only the husband works, so that generates only so much income,” said Huitron. 

The pantry now has a once-a-month mobile food truck sent by Oregon Food Bank to lessen the impact of the shutdown.

“It’s kind of depressing,” said Kennedy.

Sillonis plans to raise money for a new pantry site. She refuses to give up on her hometown.

“I have a really hard time with leaving people,” she said. “And when you’re in there and you hear people say, ‘Oh, this week I don’t have to choose between food and medicine, because you’re giving me food,’ it’s really hard to step away from that.”

The series:

Part 1 – Malheur County continues to have one of the worst rates of child poverty in Oregon, despite determined local efforts.

Part 2 – Children are living in substandard housing, as Malheur County’s shortage of homes remains challenging.

Part 3 – Getting enough food to feed children is no easy task for many Malheur County households.

Part 4 – Schools in Malheur County step in to serve children in need with more than an education.

Part 5 – Shortage of facilities and professionals leaves children’s mental health needs unmet.

The Oregon Food Bank supplies more food pantries in Malheur County. Vale Food Pantry operates from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and noon to 3 p.m. on Thursdays. The Nyssa Food Pantry serves Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings. The Ontario School District operates its own food pantry.

“We are seeing an increase in demand for emergency food and charitable food in part because we’ve also seen some of the emergency or pandemic SNAP EBT benefits kind of sunset in March,” said Lindsay Grosvenor, strategic partnership program manager for Oregon Food Bank. 

Although federal food benefits increased during the pandemic, those supports have faded away since March because the coronavirus state of emergency ended.

Regular SNAP benefits will continue but the emergency allotments ended. Over 720,000 Oregonians face a loss of about $95 for groceries each month, according to Oregon Food Bank

Meanwhile, the cost of food continues to rise. The U.S. Department of Labor said food prices have risen 7.7% from April 2022 to April 2023. In contrast, prices only went up about 2% in recent years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“It’s gotten worse,” said field worker Liliana Dominguez. “Now we go to the grocery store with a hundred dollars and we can’t buy anything. There is not enough money for anything.”

Dominguez has five children ranging from ages 3 to 20. She gets support from the Oregon Food Bank. At work, she washes onions, potatoes, beets and asparagus from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day for $15 an hour. At the start of the pandemic, she lost her job and was unable to pay her electricity bill. It was the winter of 2020, and with no heating, her children were freezing.  

Lillian Dominguez (SUEJIN LIM/The Enterprise)

“We lost a lot during Covid times. And this organization has helped a lot of people who lost their jobs,” said Dominguez. “We didn’t have the money to buy food and we would come here and they would help us. With what they would give us, we were able to feed our children.”

Although food banks provide people with a short-term solution, it’s not enough. The Oregon Food Bank recognizes that advocacy is necessary to feed families.

“We can push more and more food and we can demand more dollars and we can fundraise for more dollars to provide more emergency food,” said Grosvenor. “But if you’re not addressing the root causes of hunger, which is all of the systems and the structures and the laws and the legislation, we’re going to be swimming upstream.”

Eddie Melendrez, the community organizer in Ontario for the Oregon Food Bank, hopes to address deeper problems that people like Dominguez are facing. Melendrez reaches out to folks in the community, registering citizens to vote, educating them on what laws they could take advantage of and empowering community members to ask for more. He also serves on the Ontario City Council and, until recently, the Ontario School Board.

The crew at Oregon Food Bank’s Ontario operation helps supply food to area food panties. (SUEJIN LIM/The Enterprise)

Melendrez said he has seen the country’s distaste for immigrants and people who come to do the hard work. 

“This country heavily relies on a workforce that many times is undocumented, and they come here and they work in the fields and they do the work that nobody else will,” said Melendrez. “I just really have a heart for the field workers. I used to work in the fields growing up as well.”

According to farmer Shay Myers, CEO of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, a three-generation family business, “Without undocumented farmworkers, the $1 trillion farm and agriculture industry would collapse.”

He wrote a column for the Washington Post arguing for immigration reform because essential workers and thousands of other immigrants are critical to harvest crops.

In a four-year study conducted by the Oregon Housing and Community Services, they found that the average farmworker family in Oregon earns $20,000-$25,000 per year. This is about half of the median household income of $47,906, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It is difficult for field workers like Dominguez to get protections and benefits.

Melendrez worked to pass Senate Bill 610 in the Oregon Legislature, which died. The legislation would have provided food stamps and SNAP benefits to undocumented immigrants, refugees and citizens affected by Covid. Grosvenor said that about 62,000 people in Oregon aren’t eligible for government food benefits based on where they were born.

“There are a lot of people who need it, who need the program because it would help a lot of people, and it would be beneficial to a lot of people in this town, a majority of which are Latinos,” said Dominguez.

For those who object to handouts from the government, Melendrez points out that Oregon was built on handouts for settlers. In the 1850s, a single man was granted 320 acres, with an additional 320 acres if he had a wife, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

According to the Oregon Hunger Task Force, communities of color are two to three times more likely to experience hunger than the general population. The U.S. Census Bureau states that almost half of the people in Malheur County are Hispanic or Latino.

Liliana Dominguez hopes her story can jolt the community into action.

“I am the voice for many. I am the voice for all those who are shy and embarrassed,” said Dominguez. “But embarrassment does not feed us. We need to eat. I speak for all people.”

Reporters Christina Chkarboul, Andie Kalinowski, Shane Dimapanat and Venice Tang contributed reporting with supervision provided by Rebecca Haggerty and Judy Muller of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


Join the conversation. How can the community improve life for children in impoverished circumstances? Who should take the lead on this issue? Send an email to Publisher Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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