Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Power of a Plan – Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon

Picture a hot, sunny Saturday in August.  Picture festive canopies and tables set up in a large corner of a Fred Meyer store parking lot in East Portland, OR.  This is Portland Monthly magazine’s “Beer ‘n’ Burgers” fund-raiser, where generous patrons pay $20 to sample and vote on hamburgers and beer from local vendors.  And picture us helping by augmenting the beer and burgers with water, soda, and cookies, and by encouraging people to vote before they exit. 

Why are we doing this when we’re supposed to be studying hunger in America?  Well, we’re working alongside the staff of the organization that we had visited the day before and who will receive the funds raised today -- Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. 

Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director (right)
and Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director
We’d heard that Oregon has a particularly forward-thinking, state-wide approach to ending hunger.  The Oregon Hunger Task Force was formed by the Oregon state legislature to advise on issues related to hunger and to advocate on behalf of Oregonians at risk of hunger.  Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon is their non-profit support organization, dedicated to ending hunger in Oregon. 

To learn more about Oregon’s approach, we met with Patti Whitney-Wise, Executive Director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Jessica Chanay, Deputy Director, and Nancy Weed, SNAP Outreach Coordinator.

Patti and Jessica explained some of the history.  In 1986, Hands Across America, a publicity and fund-raising event meant to highlight the problems of hunger and homelessness in America, shocked Oregonians when they learned that their state had high rates of hunger.  In response, the state legislature created the Oregon Hunger Task Force in 1989, the first body of its kind in the nation.  Members included a broad coalition of lawmakers, state agencies, and non-profit organizations. 

The initial work of the task force fostered many successes, such as highlighting the problem of hunger in the state and improving the emergency food system.  However, in 2000, Oregon was ranked as the state with the highest percentage of its citizens experiencing hunger, according to a new measuring tool that measured food insecurity and hunger in all states.  Clearly something more was needed.

As the Task Force worked to expand Food Stamps and summer food for children, they created an initial 5-year strategic plan, Act to End Hunger.  As of 2009, progress had been achieved on 30 of its 40 specific recommendations, and the percent of hungry Oregonians had declined relative to other states.   According to USDA statistics, in 2003-2005, Oregon had greatly decreased the number of its residents experiencing very low food security, now ranking 22nd.

Then the latest recession hit, and Oregon was more strongly affected than other states.  The rates of very low food security for the years 2006-2008 once again placed Oregon as the second worst overall.  Pained but undaunted, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, with the assistance of a grant from Northwest Health Foundation, built on the earlier plan, incorporated large amounts of new input from people across the state, and created Ending Hunger before it Begins – Oregon’s Call to Action 2010 - 2015

Patti said, “Make a plan and it will happen.”  She firmly believes that having a well-founded plan is a powerful tool to guide action and make positive change.  We are very impressed by the clear focus on root causes of hunger and the specific recommendations and highlighted strategies included in the plan.  Here are the three top-level goals.

Goal 1:  Increase economic stability for people, communities, and the state.

This first goal most clearly addresses the root causes of hunger.   As Patti says, “Hunger is an income issue.”  When people have sufficient income, they can feed their families and also accrue savings to help them weather tough times.  The same is true at the state and federal levels.

The plan includes specific strategies such as expanding the earned income tax credit so that Oregonians making less than the federal poverty level would have more income to feed their families, expanding affordable healthcare and childcare, and preserving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). 

In addition, to make the state more fiscally resilient, the plan calls for actions such as repeal of the Oregon kicker law, and allowing the state an adequate rainy day fund so that important services can be preserved during difficult times.

Goal 2:  Cultivate a strong regional food system in Oregon.

It’s ironic that a hungry state with a large agricultural component keeps little of that food for itself.  Farmers often struggle economically and many areas lack access to healthy, affordable food.  People with limited means are often forced to choose foods based on cost rather than nutritional value.  So this second goal includes recommendations to better balance the food system and make healthy, locally grown produce more available to everyone, including those who are food insecure. 

Examples of strategies to improve the regional food system include improving the viability of small grocery stores in underserved urban and rural areas, expanding community and school gardens, and increasing funds for voucher programs that allow WIC participants and seniors to obtain affordable produce at farm stands and farmers’ markets.  (See the next posting in this blog for another example.)

Goal 3:  Improve the food assistance safety net.

In the short term, people who are hungry need to obtain food.  For some, this is a temporary circumstance until they can get back on their feet again.  For others, such as seniors living on a low fixed income, it is a persistent need.  The strategies under this goal offer ways to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need.
Nancy Weed,
SNAP Outreach Coordinator

Nancy Weed told us about a great example in this category.  In 2000, only about 56% of Oregonians who were eligible for SNAP (food stamps) actually received that benefit.  The Oregon Food Bank and Oregon Hunger Task Force, in focus groups with clients and through visits to local food stamp offices, found that there were many barriers to participation.  Sometimes applicants had to wait up to 3 hours or arrive at 7:00 AM.  Some applicants had misinformation about their eligibility, considered the benefit “welfare,” or were daunted by the 32-page application packet.

Through a partnership with the Department of Human Services, systematic improvements have been put in place (e.g., scheduled appointments, same-day service, 2-page application, targeted information for seniors) so that today the participation in SNAP is above 80% of those eligible, according to the USDA.  This means not only that more people were able to purchase the food they needed, but also that Oregon now receives an increase of over $1B per year in federal funds, a significant stimulus to the local economy.

We came away from our visit with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon feeling hopeful that meaningful change will actually occur.  Why the optimism?

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Hunger Task Force are collaborative, dedicated, and deeply experienced in sorting through what works and what doesn’t work.  They keep going regardless of setbacks, adjusting the plan and approach to be more and more effective, more and more focused on root causes.

Their approach brings partnership among ALL stakeholders, from those who are hungry themselves to politicians, service agencies, ecumenical groups, social scientists, healthcare insurers, foundations – anyone and everyone who can help leverage positive change.

Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon uses its own staff of 10 to work in areas where the need and the potential impact are high, but areas that other organizations are not covering.  Currently, that means that Patti and Jessica do a lot of lobbying and coalition-building at the state level based on the goals and recommendations in Ending Hunger Before it Begins, and others work on specific strategies such as bringing better nutrition services to children and seniors.

Finally, the website is a rich source of thoughtful, practical, and clearly-presented information, freely available to anyone who’d like to help eliminate hunger in their community.

Thank you, Oregon, for showing the way!

No comments:

Post a Comment