John Elizalde, manager of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon's (EMO) Northeast Emergency Food Program, stands rubbing his head, wondering at the incredible increase in people who have come through his door seeking food.
"I have no idea what's going on, but something weird is happening out there," he says, a tone of wonderment creeping into his voice. Last year at this time, his pantry, located in the basement of Northeast Portland's Luther Memorial Lutheran Church (4800 NE 72nd), fed an average of 21 families a day. Today it was 34.
As we speak, two men patiently walk among the shelves picking out their allotment of proteins, frozen meats, and various other foodstuffs. A volunteer guides them through the process. "You can either have the chili or the stew, but you can't have them both," he says gently.
This is grocery shopping without money. It doesn't have the selection of a Whole Foods Market, but it will provide these men enough food for three to five days. That's the hope, anyway.
Talking to Elizalde, you'd find it hard to believe that he spends four days a week as a witness to his neighbors' hardships. He is congenial and full of energy. "Did you see the art?" he asks.
He's referring to the murals that take up a good deal of wall space around the pantry: Coyotes howl at the moon and an ocean scene washes up on a three-dimensional pebbly beach, complete with seashells. It's obvious that much has been done to make this a place of refuge—rather than a depot of poverty.
OLD MOTHER FOOD BANK
Just one of the multitude of emergency food pantries in the greater Portland area, the EMO pantry offers food to all comers, the only stipulation being that they answer a few questions for statistical purposes. Enter with empty pockets and leave with grocery bags.
The EMO pantry is one of 348 emergency food pantries around the state that receive a portion of the 30 million-plus pounds of food distributed by the Oregon Food Bank each year. This allotment is augmented by community donations and fresh offerings from local farms and grocery stores.
But hard times are not just hitting the 194,000 individuals who use emergency food from the Oregon Food Bank each month; they are also hitting the food bank itself. Problems began last fall, when food bank volunteers were feeling a bit like Old Mother Hubbard. Shelves were beginning to look empty and dusty. This was due in part to increased need from Oregonians, as well as decreased commodities from the US Department of Agriculture and flagging donations. The alarm bell was sounded. Fortunately communities around the state responded over the holidays, which helped—however, the food bank still finds itself having to purchase more and more of the food it provides.
When the food bank buys food, they get the absolute best price on whatever they purchase. Unfortunately, the cost of that food has increased significantly.
You think your trip to the grocery store is hard? Yeah, you might be disappointed that the cost of your Annie's Organic Gorgonzola and Dead Sea Salt Cheese Doodles have gone up by a quarter, but imagine shopping for the entire state.
Prices for dry goods have risen, in some cases by 50 percent, in the last year. Some of this has to do with the increasing price of corn as more and more is being used to create biofuels. Other factors in the price increase include higher global demand for grain and increased gas prices, which have driven up the cost of shipping.
If the economy does shit the bed in a major way, it's quite possible that the lifeline for thousands of families could be significantly weakened. The problem is that the same devilish market forces that are increasing food costs around the globe are affecting both Oregon families and the food bank.
Still, many local grocery stores have filled the gap with a program called Fresh Alliance. Daily, trucks make the rounds of local grocers, picking up fresh and frozen products that have passed their "sell by" date. These are then delivered to emergency food pantries where they can be distributed to the public within 24 hours. The best thing about this program is that people who use the pantries are able to have a wider variety of fresh and healthy foods, rather than high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, pre-cooked meals.
THE NIGHTMARE SCENARIO
So, let's just say for the sake of illustration that a depression does hit the US and my wife, Kitty, loses her job. That would leave me as the major earner in the household. It's not the best idea to rely on a writer's income. In fact, it's insane.
Like most people I know, I live practically paycheck to paycheck. Sure, there is some disposable income (for booze and cigarettes and the occasional movie), but if we were hit by a medical emergency, we would be simply screwed.
In fact, we would be as screwed as about 47 percent of the working families who rely on emergency food boxes every month. Most emergency food recipients are working, but distribute their money toward bills and medical costs.
For Kitty and I, as soon as the money dried up, we might very well find ourselves in the basement of Luther Memorial, with dour faces and grumbling stomachs. John Elizalde would greet us warmly, attempting to erase the shame of being poor. We'd be interviewed before being shuffled through the pantry to choose from a selection of canned foods and frozen meats. We might get a bag of rice, or a box of matzo ball soup. We could get a package of frozen pig feet or chicken livers. If we were there on the right day, we might even get some vegetables. On the day that I visited the basement of Luther Memorial—luckily as a reporter rather than a patron—they had just distributed bags that included tomatoes, potatoes, parsnips, lettuce, and garlic. But the problem would remain. What would a self-confessed food snob do with parsnips and pig feet? The answer is simple: Call in a ringer. [Meet our ringer, and her food bank recipes, on page 9.]
Luckily for all of us, the pantry doors of Luther Memorial remain open, because when you think about it—how financially safe are you?