In the community

Local officials grapple with hunger crisis as solutions remain elusive

ONTARIO – Thousands of people seek help from food pantries every week in Malheur County but finding easy answers to hunger has so far proved elusive for elected officials, nonprofits and other agencies.

Creating more food pantries in the county isn’t the answer, said Lindsay Grosvenor, strategic partnership program manager for the Oregon Food Bank-Southeast Oregon Services.

“We can add more food pantries but we are swimming upstream and it’s a band-aid to a deeper-rooted problem,” said Grosvenor.

That problem involves affordable housing, homelessness, substance abuse, economic development and jobs that pay a living wage.

A single solution to the food crisis in Malheur County doesn’t exist, said Grosvenor.

“You can’t point your finger at any one thing,” said Grosvenor.

Certainly, she said, poverty plays the biggest role. The county records one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

“Poverty and inequalities are the root causes of hunger. How do we fix poverty? Obviously, no one has the answer to that and that is not exclusive to Malheur County,” said Grosvenor.

The number of people who seek food at area pantries continues to grow. Oregon Food Bank statistics show for the fourth quarter of 2022 – April to June – 8,300 people in the county sought food. In the fourth quarter of 2023, 15,600 people sought food, an increase of nearly 87%. Grosvenor, though, said some of those people could have visited a food pantry more than once.

The number of individuals and families who need food assistance is significant.

Grosvenor recently asked the Malheur County Court for help.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said at a December county court session that

 the “No. 1 goal is to help you get finances, whether state of federal.”

“It takes your guidance to get us there,” Joyce told Grosvenor.

County Commissioner Ron Jacobs said the county sees the need.

“We will do whatever we can to keep it moving forward,” he said.

At the meeting, Jacobs said one way the county could help stamp out hunger is to “increase job creation.”

“We can raise the economic availability and opportunities for people to take care of themselves. We just don’t want to continue to keep getting money to throw out there. We want them to get independent and self-sufficient. I think that is a big part of the county’s responsibility,” he said.

In follow up meetings in January, said Grosvenor, county officials again pledged to help find funds at the state and federal level but offered no county cash.

Last week Jacobs said he considers hunger in the county to be “pretty serious” but “there isn’t an easy answer.”

The county is sitting on more than $10 million in federal funds that were unexpected and can be used for any purpose.

Jacobs said he isn’t opposed to using those federal funds to address hunger.

“I don’t know how we could use it. We’d have to have a conversation with the right people to find out if there is any way it could be used for that purpose and still be effective,” he said.

He said he still believes creating more jobs is key.

“I think that is what we need, to get jobs in here for people so they can support themselves,” he said.

Grosvenor said several steps could alleviate local hunger. One would be expanding the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.

The program, she said, not only benefits those who are in need but also the local economy.

“Not only are we helping families to afford food and have some autonomy, but all of those monies go right back into our communities,” said Grosvenor.

Grosvenor said if SNAP benefits could be increased to match the level they were during the Covid pandemic “and make it accessible to everyone working and living here, then I think we’d see a big difference.”

“The other things have to do with housing, affordable housing and health care. There are different kinds of levers we can pull to give people more dollars to spend toward their families,” she said.

Grosvenor said the Oregon Food Bank is also putting a focus on a broader effort to educate people and “having your voice heard and being loud,” about local inequalities such as hunger.

“The charitable model is not the answer. We know people need food today and the Oregon Food Bank will continue to have pantries and bring food to communities. But we also know because that is not the root cause of hunger. We are doing an effort of organizing and advocating around a more equitable food system in general,” said Grosvenor.

“When we talk organizing, it means coming together to support a certain cause. Part of that is informing people that this is who your candidates are and now it is your job to vote,” she said.

A crisis such as hunger can be influenced by voters who rally around, and elect, candidates who offer remedies.

The key, she said, is for local residents to get involved.

“It is just not volunteering at the pantry. It helps but only helps people today. If you want your community to be different, we have to change the system that perpetrates hunger,” said Grosvenor.

The Oregon Food Bank-Southeast Oregon Services is also preparing to kick off a fundraising campaign for a community food center. The ambitious plan involves the construction of a warehouse next to River Bend Place in Ontario. River Bend Place was the former Presbyterian Community Care Center that was converted into a 56-unit, affordable housing project.

Grosvenor said the warehouse would house the Oregon Food Bank but also focus on food and providing a wide range of services.

So, for example, an individual could visit the site and enroll in SNAP benefits, apply for Medicaid and get a hot meal. At the same time, local farmers could sell their food at the site.

The Oregon Food Bank-Southeast Oregon Services holds $3.6 million through a federal grant for the facility but needs between up to $8 million more, said Grosvenor.

She said the county court agreed to write a letter of support for the venture.

Commissioner Jim Mendiola said he the community food center is “a great cause.”

“I think it would give more access to food. It is kind of a win-win situation but I just don’t know what we can do to give her (Grosvenor) money at this time,” he said.

Mendiola said he wished the county could allocate some of the federal money it holds to the community food center.

“There are legitimate reasons to spend that money but we are not all on the same page when it comes to spending it,” he said.

Grosvenor said the effort to create the community food center is supported by a host of local agencies and nonprofits, including the Idaho Food Bank, St. Luke’s Health System and Saint Alphonsus Health.

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

Previous coverage:

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

Oregon food banks forced to tighten belts as hunger swells across the state

Big grant propels effort by Adrian civic group to create new food pantry

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