Casey Wheeler, Executive Director of Columbia Pacific Food Bank said that in the St. Helens School District one in five students are eligible for food bank services. 30-50 families visit the St. Helens food bank a day. “Usually families and kids only come in if they absolutely have run out of food,” Wheeler said. Two groups of people that regularly use the food bank are seniors with set income and individuals who have some sort of addiction or disability.
Wednesday Nov. 29, Children First for Oregon released ‘The Status of Oregon Children and Families: 2017 County Data Book’. The report highlights statistics in health, welfare, financial stability, early childhood education, and youth development and education. Statewide the numbers are looking better in recent years but many counties have a long way to go to ensure all kids’ needs are met. In Columbia County 2,660 children between the ages of 0-17 live with food insecurity. That is 1.7 percent less than the previous years rate and 1.2 percent greater than Oregon’s average overall. It may look better but food insecurity is a huge and serious problem affecting many children in the county.
Wheeler said that from 2015 to 2016 the food bank had a 22 percent increase in people coming by, of which 37 percent are children. He thinks the problem has to do with expensive housing and lack of family wage jobs. Wheeler said that most people in Columbia County commute out of the county for work, and more will have to since Armstrong is closing mid-2018. It is skills and reliable transportation that are low-income familie’s biggest issues according to Wheeler. “I’m a big believer of long-term job creations,” Wheeler said. He hopes Portland Community College’s new training center with Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC) in Scappoose will bring skills and better jobs to the youth in a couple of years.
The St. Helens Barbara Bullis Memorial HELP Food Pantry is the biggest food bank in the county. They give out 10 tons of food a week. “What other pantries give out in a week, the St. Helens one do in a day,” Wheeler said.
Jana Mann, coordinator for The Supplemental Nutrition Program from Women Infants, and Children (WIC) with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County said there are a lot of hungry people in Columbia County. “The food budget is the only place you have any wiggle room because you know you can’t renegotiate your rent or mortgage, and you have to pay for gas, utility fees and medical,” Mann said.
WIC served 1,114 families in Columbia County in 2016, where 66 percent are working families. Among a total of 1,945 women, infants and children, 1,401 were infants and children under the age of five. 38 percent of all pregnant women were also served by WIC.
“I think, in my own mind, that food insecurity is when you might have food in your house but if you’re down to a box of stuffing mix, yes you have food in your house but that doesn’t mean you’re going to eat it. I think wondering how you’re going to feed your family is food insecurity,” Mann said.
The WIC coordinator asks every client if there were times in the last month where they worried about running out of food or money to buy food.
“I had a mom the other day, she said ‘oh, yeah’ but my grandma is feeding us – it’s okay. That’s their way of coping. She didn’t consider herself to be food insecure because she did have a place where she could get food but that is food insecurity,” Mann said.
Food budgets may decrease for families as housing prizes are going up.
“It’s crazy what the price of housing has become. I was looking online and some of them were renting a house for $1500 a month. That’s a lot of money for two bedrooms and a bath. If I had to pay that kind of rent I would have to give up something else, and again the food budget is kind of it,” Mann said.
Mann is also concerned about Armstrong closing in mid-2018.
“That’s a skilled worker pool that won’t have anywhere to go. Those were comfortably living wages – what are they going to do? You’re just adding more to the hungry pool,” she said.
Families eligible for WIC get a generous food allowance. People fall under different categories depending on if they’re a pregnant mom, breastfeeding mom, or kid with allergies for example.
“If you’re an anemic pregnant mom we will work with you about increasing the iron in your diet, how to use the WIC foods to most maximize your benefits and then offer you vitamins or a follow-up with a dietitian,” Mann said.
The food package itself is also generous and includes milk, eggs, cheese, juice, cold cereal, peanut butter, beans, an allowance for whole grains and an allowance to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. As part of The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), WIC has to meet certain nutritional standards. “They (USDA) set what’s allowed, then each state based on what’s available most commonly in their grocery stores builds the food lists,” Mann said.
The Public Health Foundation of Columbia County works as a drop for fresh produce from the food bank every week.
“We have all kinds of people that stop and take some. Our own clientele from various programs, regular community members that know it’s going to be here and several people from the retirement center,” Mann said.
To qualify for WIC you need to meet an income guideline, and a medical or nutritional reason in order to benefit from the program. “A lot of families that have medium income don’t realize they can qualify. Our income guidelines are very generous and they’re available online, or you can call,” Mann said. Children in foster care are automatically eligible and a part of WIC.
Children on WIC graduate when they’re five. “They’re on their own after that, unfortunately,” Mann said. “There was a push in the previous presidential administration to have WIC extend it until kids were six, so they could be on a USDA food program until they were old enough to go to school and then be a part of the breakfast and lunch program there so there was a food security through public service. I don’t know where that’s gone. I think nowhere.”
Mann said county funding for a greater food bank presence could help with food insecurity. “We appreciate what the food bank does because we benefit from it - us indirectly but our families certainly. If there were a way to expand food bank services through greater funding I think that would be ideal,” Mann said.
The Public Health Foundation always asks families about food insecurity because it can qualify them to be on WIC. “We’re always happy to enroll new kids on WIC. That’s what we do - we feed kids,” she said.
“We can refer to school based health centers, the community action team that will help with housing and heat, and specialists at OHSU, the food bank etc.,” Mann said. “We try to not have anybody leave here without a contact number for someone else. We don’t always have the ability to help but will point people in the right direction.”