Local Food Aid Organizations Report Record Numbers of Food Insecurity | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Local Food Aid Organizations Report Record Numbers of Food Insecurity

Increased prices and assistance cutbacks are impacting the region's food security

Central Oregon organizations with food assistance programs have witnessed an increase in food insecurity in Central Oregon in the past few years. With growing expenses and cutbacks on government assistance programs, more families are struggling to have access to food, with young people getting hit the hardest.

Local nonprofit NeighborImpact offers one of the largest food assistance programs in Central Oregon with its food bank and mobile pantry system. NeighborImpact has had its food bank since 1984 and has continued to increase operations since. The organization is currently building a new food warehouse to keep up with a growing demand.

click to enlarge Local Food Aid Organizations Report Record Numbers of Food Insecurity

The new, over-10,000-square-foot warehouse will be able to provide around 138,000 more meals to the region and is projected to be operational by December.

Before Covid-19, NeighborImpact had about 42,000 individuals utilizing its food resources. When the pandemic hit, the numbers really spiked, said Food Program Director Carly Auten. Following the initial growth, the food bank saw some relief, because of programs like rent assistance, SNAP benefits, and more.

Around March 2023, the Emergency SNAP allotment dollars expired, said Auten. At the same time, other programs began expiring, while the cost of everyday necessities continued to rise, causing food insecurity numbers to spike.

"Food has gone up 10%, gas has gone up, everything has gone up," said Auten. "That's when we started to see our numbers really increase, and they haven't dipped. They keep going up."

According to Jordan Reeher, the food program manager at NeighborImpact, today the food bank is serving around 70,000 individuals every month through its network of food pantries and meal sites. The food bank distributes meals to Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

"That has stayed consistent. We haven't seen any real decline or anything on the horizon saying it's going to go down anytime soon," said Reeher. The current NeighborImpact warehouse in Redmond, on the same site the new one will sit, was meant to serve around 40,000 individuals. "We have really outgrown this space," said Auten.

Other local programs, like The Giving Plate, are experiencing similar changes. 'We're serving more families every month," said Julia Harpole, the operations manager with The Giving Plate.

In April, and then again in May, the organization served more families than they had ever served before. Last year, The Giving Plate saw a 32% increase in the total individuals served in its Grocery Program. It served 31,721 individuals in 2022 and 41,927 in 2023.

According to Auten at NeighborImpact, there are populations in the region that experience food insecurity at a higher rate than others, including the BIPOC community, the LGBTQ+ community, folks with disabilities and seniors. Over one-third of the population that his organization serves, around 35% are children, said Auten.

With an increasingly vulnerable age group, specific programs such as Women, Infants and Children can help alleviate the challenges. WIC is a federally-funded nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children providing access to healthful foods, nutrition and food benefits.

The program, which just celebrated it 50th year in service, had been at a steady decline for a couple of decades, according to Christina Pagano, Deschutes County WIC supervisor. This year is the first time in a long time that the program has seen a national increase in participation. "The 'why' is lots of reasons," said Pagano.

Anecdotally, Pagano has heard that families are more financially strapped, with increased costs of food. She mentioned the once-elevated SNAP benefits helping families and children ending, which didn't help.

However, the sunset of some COVID assistance programs has sparked an increased effort in youth-focused initiatives.

Among the wide range of programs that The Giving Plate offers, its youth programs have continued to serve a growing number of individuals in the region. In its grocery program store, it has a section called Kid's Korner, where kids can go and choose their food once a week.

Another one of its youth programs, Backpacks for Bend, has seen significant growth according to Harpole. The program gives around 1,500 backpacks of food throughout Central Oregon. It also has a Kid's Korner mobile pantry to reach rural communities.

Bend-La Pine Schools also help students with its Free Summer Meal Program, beginning June 24. The program offers meals at no charge to kids and teens up to age 18 at four outdoor locations throughout the summer.

"Our summer meals program helps provide families with food security when our school kitchens are closed," said Garra Schluter, Assistant Director of Nutrition for the school district. "We see a lot of families come out each weekday, enjoy a lunch made from scratch and have some fun in the parks."

While these programs have increased services and attempted to lower barriers, the growing food insecurity concern in the region is something organizations will have to monitor.

"I am concerned because we don't see any relief coming anytime soon. So, it's something we think a lot about," said Auten.

Julianna LaFollette

Julianna earned her Masters in Journalism at NYU in 2024. She loves writing local stories about interesting people and events. When she’s not reporting, you can find her cooking, participating in outdoor activities or attempting to keep up with her 90 pound dog, Finn.
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