In the community

Local food pantries see a rise in the number of people seeking assistance

VALE – The national news describes a solid national economy and falling gas prices but local volunteers and leaders of food pantries tell a story of a growing need for food that stretches across ethnic, cultural and economic classes.
“We are averaging feeding pretty close to 150 people a week,” said Doug Dean, the manager of the Veterans Advocates of Ore-Ida food pantry in Ontario.
Usually, said Dean, the food pantry supplies 300 people a month but the number of people seeking food has climbed over the last six months.
“It has about doubled,” he said.
Dean said the pantry, at 180 W. Idaho Ave., distributed three tons of food in November.
More than half who use the pantry are veterans or members of the National Guard, he said.
“I think it is just a sign of the times,” said Dean.
The Veterans Advocates food pantry relies on donations of food and supplies passed along by the Oregon Food Bank. The pantry is open to all, said Dean, not just veterans.
The pantry also hands out blankets to those in need, said Dean, through a program sponsored by the Oregon Food Bank.
Dean said the pantry also creates “walking bags” of food for the homeless. A walking bag, said Dean, usually consists of items in pull-top cans, crackers, canned tuna, water or flavored water, peanut butter and jelly and an assortment of candy or a Cliff Bar.
“If I have fresh produce, I put some of them in,” said Dean.
“Then I have a box for a family of 2, 3, 4, or 6,” he said.
The food boxes include fruits, vegetables, cooking oil, pasta, rice and oatmeal.
“Also, some kind of baking mix and something to drink,” he said.
Soups, olive oil and tuna fish are also included in the boxes.
“We also have canned salmon when we can get it,” he said.
The food pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
In Vale the number of people who seek food is also on the rise, said Luwana Hinrich, a volunteer for the Vale Food Pantry.
“We are getting more and more people coming in,” said Hinrich.
Connie Ussing, the manager of the Vale Food Pantry at 252 B St., said the number of people seeking food “has been pretty steady.”
“It’s a few more each month then a few more and a few more,” said Ussing.
Ussing and Hinrich said the increase in the number of people seeking food began to climb after the emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP – ended in March.
Lindsay Grosvenor, strategic partnership program manager for the Oregon Food Bank-Southeast Oregon Services, said her organization also sees growing demand.
Oregon Food Bank statistics show for the fourth quarter of 2022 – April to June – 8,300 individuals in Malheur County sought food. So far for the fourth quarter of 2023, 15,600 people sought food assistance, an increase of nearly 87%. However, Grosvenor cautioned some of those counted could have visited a food pantry more than once.
“That still means they need it. Now they are going four times a month instead of twice a month last year,” said Grosvenor.
Grosvenor also said the boost in need can be attributed to inflation and the end of the emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hinrich said those seeking food don’t necessarily fit into a single category.
“We have a lot that are more middle class but can’t afford to make ends meet,” said Hinrich.
The Vale Food Pantry relies on donations and a delivery of product from the Oregon Food Bank every other Wednesday.
“With the inflation we are having and gas prices going up, people can’t afford to live so they are coming to the food bank more and more,” said Hinrich.
Ussing began work at the Vale pantry 18 years ago.
She’s seen the need for food climb and recede but she said she’s never seen the need “to this extent.”
Hinrich said in October Vale served 179 family households. In November the pantry served 200.
“A lot of them are working families,” she said.
The Vale Food Pantry also delivers food once a month to out-of-the-way places not usually considered to be in an area of food scarcity.
The food pantry delivers to more than 20 people in the Brogan area.
“They can’t make it into Vale to get groceries. Some are housebound or don’t have the gas money to get to Vale,” said Hinrich.
Hinrich and Dean said food donations are “always welcome.”
To volunteer or to donate, interested individuals can contact Ussing at 541-881-7622 or Dean at 541-709-8368.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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