'Immoral irony': Hunger rates highest in rural West

MATLOCK, Wash. -- An old pickup truck turns off a lonely, two-lane country road into a crowded gravel parking lot, and 62-year-old Jerry lumbers out to join the line of people waiting for the Matlock Food Bank to open.

A real estate agent before a string of heart attacks forced him into retirement and medical debt, Jerry asks that his full name not be used. He doesn't want his children to know he relies on the food bank for staples every week. The pills that keep his heart beating cost him $200 a month, the rural property he invested in for retirement isn't worth enough to sell, and he just can't afford it all.

He stands up straight in crisp blue jeans and a faded blue flannel shirt as he waits in line, the low, gray sky casting a pall over the parking lot. Jerry doesn't get food stamps -- his wife cans vegetables from their garden, he hunts and fishes and they raise chickens to keep food on the table. But he's not too proud to accept help when he needs it.

"We're in a depression, not a recession," Jerry said, gazing through thick, round glasses at the woods surrounding his hardscrabble, timber-dependent town. "Most of the people that come here, they're my neighbors."

In Matlock, as in so many rural Western communities, everyone knows the threat of hunger is never far away.

The problem has spread throughout the West, where researchers identify a "hunger belt" stretching from New Mexico to Washington state.

The phenomenon baffled researchers when it was first documented in the 1990s -- poverty rates are higher in the South, so why do people suffer from hunger more often in the West? Now researchers point to a combination of unemployment, seasonal work, rural isolation, population growth and high cost of living that conspires to send people to bed on an empty stomach.

As the economy continues to struggle, the hunger belt gets tighter every day.

"There's no good jobs around here. They've got to work at McDonald's and those places don't pay enough for people to live on," says Marge Brown, who runs the Matlock Food Bank, which serves about 60 families a week. "It doesn't look like it's going to get better."

New statistics released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirm the picture of hunger in the West.

Oregon has the highest hunger rate, with 5.8 percent of households experiencing hunger each year, followed by Washington, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, New Mexico and Montana.

Until recently, Washington and Oregon have enjoyed an image of growth and prosperity fueled by the economic boom of the late 1990s. But the good times were largely confined to Seattle and Portland. Rural areas are still struggling to crawl out of the hole created by downturns in natural resources-based industries: fishing, farming, mining and timber.

The specter of hunger in agricultural areas is "a weird, immoral irony," said Doug O'Brien, vice president of public policy and research at Chicago-based America's Second Harvest, the country's largest private hunger-relief charity. "The people that live in the very communities that raise the food we're going to feast on, one in ten of these households are hungry or at risk of hunger."

At the Matlock Food Bank, the roar of logging trucks on nearby roads testifies to the main industry in the county, one that's been declining since the 1980s. Areas like Matlock haven't yet found a substitute for the family-wage jobs that logging once provided.

Migrant workers flock to the area each fall, joining locals for the mushroom harvest, but the work is temporary and the pay low. Several mushroom pickers, their jeans and hands wet with mud stains, stop by the food bank.

Mushroom picker Barbara Thomas visits the Matlock food bank every Wednesday to get food for her six children, rushing so she can return to work in the woods before the afternoon light fades. Asked if she ever goes hungry because she can't afford to eat, she nodded curtly.

"Yeah," she said. "Tuesdays."

Unemployment and prevalence of seasonal labor go hand-in-hand with hunger, experts say. Oregon, Washington and Alaska rank high in both jobless and hunger rates. Across the West, the agriculture industry relies on seasonal labor to harvest everything from mushrooms to apples. Families that work in the summer often can't make ends meet in the winter.

Many poor people could get help from the government but don't know it. Nationally, about 57 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps don't get them. Many believe receiving food stamps counts against their lifetime limit for welfare -- it doesn't.

States are trying to raise awareness about the available benefits, but tight budgets make it hard to run advertising campaigns. At the same time, private charities are struggling with a drop-off in donations of food and money because of the recession.

The go-go economy of the late 90s may have contributed to the hunger problem by driving up housing prices, experts said. Housing costs have skyrocketed in Seattle, Portland and similar cities, and income hasn't kept up, especially for low-wage workers. Housing costs have risen in rural areas too, though not as dramatically.

"Food is a cost that you can decide for short periods not to pay and get away with it. You have to pay the rent or you're out on the street. But you can go to bed hungry and still get up in the morning and go to work," said Michael Leachman, a researcher with the Oregon Center for Public Policy who studies hunger.

The allure of the West also contributes to its dark side. People move to places like Oregon and Washington in search of jobs or just a fresh start.

"It's a path we've taken in this country since the founding," said O'Brien at Second Harvest. "You keep going West when things are bad where you're at."

When something goes wrong -- job loss, divorce or illness -- new arrivals don't have an extended family network to support them.

That's what happened to Carolanne Grant, 38, who moved to Seattle from Connecticut in 1995 in search of a job. She found it, and kept her job as a janitorial supervisor even after her boyfriend kicked her out of their house and she started sleeping in bus shelters.

"I kept working, but it wasn't enough to pay rent," Grant said. "I walked up and down 3rd Avenue begging food. I told friends to bring leftovers to work. It was humiliating."

She got fired after she fell asleep at work. Now she lives at a homeless shelter and cooks lunch almost every day at the Church of Mary Magdalene, a downtown center for homeless women.

When the federal government first released state hunger rankings in the late 1990s, some policy makers in Oregon and Washington thought something must be wrong with the statistics, which come from Census surveys.

But several studies have reinforced the rankings, most recently the USDA report released in November. Now, even skeptics who don't entirely trust the data agree there's a problem.

"I'm still dubious," said Dennis Braddock, head of Washington's Department of Social and Health Services. But he's worried. A recent survey of Washington welfare recipients showed that 43 percent say they've eaten less due to lack of money in the last year, up from a third the year before.

"My concern," Braddock said, "is the problem seems to be getting worse."


On the Net:

Western Regional Anti-Hunger Consortium: http://www.wrahc.org/

America's Second Harvest: http://www.secondharvest.org/

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