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Food shortage threatens health

My message is simple. Feed the hungry.

America's Second Harvest (this nation's hunger relief coordinating network) indicates food banks in this area and around the country are experiencing "critical shortages."

These food banks and food pantries are no longer feeding just the homeless, they're increasingly feeding working families whose monthly income is sorely stretched buying gas for the cars they need to get to work, so they can continue to be "a working family." These same households are frequently in perilous circumstances due to rent increases or pending foreclosures. Illness and chronic diseases are a further complication.

Sociologist Lane Kenworthy at the University of Arizona follows food insecurity and poverty closely and suggests "household incomes are"¦ stuck." There are few ways to increase money coming into families on the edge and many of these families carry a heavy debt load.

It's an unusual combination, a "perfect storm" of factors that makes this year worse — but it's anything but perfect.

The components look something like this. Food insecurity and hunger are real, particularly in low-income families with small children and for elders with fixed incomes. In addition, there's been a substantial decrease in federal availability of excess farm products (the "commodities" that previously formed the food safety net). Ironically, experts say that's because farmers are doing well and have fewer surplus crops to sell to the Department of Agriculture's bonus commodity program. Others suggest commodities that once went to hungry families in the U.S. are now traveling overseas for hungry people in other counties. Add realities like less available food donated by supermarkets or retailers — that's reportedly because the food chains have developed inventory efficiencies and simply have less to donate. Or, in some cases, they're able to sell extra food to lower-cost food retailers. And then there's you and me; we definitely aren't donating as much as we could, or should.

The emergency food networks in our area are desperately in need of food. If you knew that and have acted on it, I salute you, and ask that you plan to do it every month for a while, not just at this holiday season. If you have not stepped forward yet, hear this call. Contact ACCESS (www.access-inc.org or 779-6691).

I'm a volunteer for Food & Friends, this area's "meals on wheels" program. I donate my time once a week to delivering meals to homebound elders. This program is partially funded by the Older Americans Act, but only partially. It's a program whose resources are sorely stretched. Hear their call, too. The Food & Friends program needs more volunteers, as well as monetary contributions. (www.rvcog.org or 664-6674.)

I cherish that feeling of handing off a hot meal and a smile to an 85-year-old woman living in a tiny home at the far end of an almost-abandoned street. I'm not pleased she's sitting in a colder-than-it-should-be house wearing layers of sweaters. I'm concerned I may be one of few visitors she will see this season and worry when she tells me her arthritis is acting up.

But, first things first. She's hungry, and today she's getting fed. Let's start there.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu.