Lynne Terry

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) Oregon food banks are bracing for an uptick in demand in March when hundreds of thousands of state residents will face a drastic cut in their food budget.

More than 720,000 Oregonians rely on the federal food Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to eat. In April 2020, after the pandemic hit and many people lost wages and jobs, federal authorities increased monthly SNAP benefits by nearly 70% to an average of nearly $450 per household a month. But in March, those monthly emergency funds will go away, reducing the average benefit to nearly $270 a month for about 410,000 households.

And though food prices have come down somewhat, it still costs much more to feed a family these days than in 2020.

“As Oregon continues to be impacted by COVID-19, we know that without these emergency food benefits some in Oregon may experience hardship and hunger.” Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, said in a statement announcing the cut.

The Legislature is considering a trio of bills to increase food aid, but their outlook is unclear and the session runs through June 25 (see sidebar). In the meantime, the department is urging Oregonians to prepare for the cut and identify food pantries in the area.  The Oregon Food Bank, which serves 1,400 free food markets, pantries, meal sites and delivery programs statewide, is also preparing for stepped-up demand.

“We’re placing more orders so that our warehouse is full to bursting,” Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank, told the Capital Chronicle.

The food bank served about 850,000 people in 2019 in Oregon. But demand soared to 1.7 million needing assistance in 2020 as the pandemic spread, causing closures of businesses and schools and a loss of jobs. As federal assistance kicked in and people went back to work, about 1.2 million relied on the Oregon Food Bank’s network in 2021, Morgan said.

With food inflation soaring to about 10% last year, about 1.5 million relied on Oregon Food Bank’s network. Although food inflation has dropped, Morgan said the company expects to see similar demand this year, with a spike starting in March.

“More than half of the folks who shop at a food pantry are on SNAP. So there’s a huge overlap between the number of people who get SNAP and the number of people who get food assistance,” Morgan said.

About 40% of the food distributed by the food bank and its affiliates comes through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and about the same amount comes from the food system in Oregon. That includes donations from retail stores and farmers.

The food bank also relies on donations but, with inflation, that money doesn’t go as far as it used to. For example, in 2019, the food bank paid $32,000 for a truckload of peanut butter. Recently, it cost $42,000, Morgan said.

Last September, the legislative Emergency Board approved a $5 million allocation to the food bank. Morgan said that money is gone.

“More than 5 million pounds of food a week flow through our main facility in Northeast Portland,” Morgan said. “If we’re lucky, we can purchase food at $0.60 a pound. So you get a sense of how quickly we can spend $5 million to keep that additional food flowing.”

The food bank uses donations to buy pantry staples, like rice, beans, pasta and cooking oil. Morgan said the nonprofit aims to stock food that appeals to different cultures. Instead of buying tomato sauce, which is useful for making European-inspired sauces, for example, it purchases diced tomatoes, which can also be used for tacos or curry.

The food bank and its affiliates require residents to make less than  300% of the federal poverty level, or $43,740 a year for one person and $90,000 a year for a family of four. SNAP income requirements are tighter: one person can earn no more than $17,667 and a family of four is restricted to a maximum annual income of $36,075.

Nevertheless, SNAP supplies more food.

“For every meal that we provide through the food assistance system, SNAP provides at least 10 times as many meals,” Morgan said. “It’s important to understand how much larger a program SNAP is.”

That’s why the cut in benefits is likely to slice deep. The Department of Human Services and food banks are trying to get word out, so people are prepared. The food network has posted in eight languages, alerting people to the change, and pointing them toward assistance.

“I want our community to know this change is coming. And if you’ve never used food assistance before, it exists and it will be here to help you and the food assistance is available to you,” Morgan said.