Ed Blancato wheels full backpacks on way to children at Barnes School.
Need has continued to rise
Long-term unemployment, persistent underemployment, inadequate benefits and the high cost of food, gasoline, utilities and rent are the leading reasons people seek emergency food, according to a survey taken by food banks in Oregon.
The assessment was filled out by 4,600 recipients at pantries in Oregon and southwest Washington.
The survey shows the poorest of the poor are getting poorer. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported a drop in monthly income during the past two years. About three of four reported incomes below the federal poverty line — gross income of $23,050 for a family of four.
“We’ve lost our business, our work, our home and have sold our stuff. God help us if things don’t change,” one survey respondent said.
The Oregon Food Bank Network distributed more than a million emergency food boxes from during fiscal year 2012. That’s a 9-percent increase over the previous year.
“We are seeing more and more families with children who are working yet still struggle to feed their families due to the rising cost of living,” said Dwayne Patterson of the Salvation Army.
The one bright spot of the survey shows that some people are beginning to dig out. Households reporting at least one member with a full-time job increased from 22 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2012.
BEAVERTON — Members of Holy Trinity Parish here were shocked at the statistics.
More than three fourths of children at the public grade school across the street qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The numbers meant poverty is close by.
Suburban Holy Trinity is an active spiritual hub for a wide variety of Catholics, including Nike workers and high-tech engineers. Signs at the exits to the parking lots say, "Go Make a Difference." When the figures about Barnes School came to light, that's just what parishioners did.
It turns out that children at Barnes get several free meals at school each weekday. But on the weekends, children were going hungry. Parents were away working, or parents and relatives left behind with children had nothing too cook.
Holy Trinity teamed up with Beaverton Foursquare next door and began providing backpacks full of food that students carry home on Friday afternoons. Each week, volunteers from Holy Trinity load the packs — donated by Nike — and transport them to Barnes, full of beans, rice, tortillas, pasta, soup, applesauce and other staples. Children carry the 15-pound satchels home on the school bus, and return the empty packs on Mondays. The program began in October.
"Hunger affects school performance," says Kassidee Fisher, who manages an Impact Northwest after-school program at Barnes. "We find children come back to school on Monday and are more ready to learn."
Fisher explains that, far from being stigmatized by getting the supplies, children are proud to bring sustenance to their families. One recipient sent a thank you note in one of the packs. "We really enjoyed the food," the note said. "Our weekend was very relaxed knowing that we had some things for meals."
Ed Blancato has never known that kind of poverty. But he was laid off from a power tool sales job in South Carolina. He and his wife moved to Oregon this year to be closer to their daughter. The couple soon got involved at Holy Trinity. Blancato, 60, volunteered to manage the backpack program.
"I thought I might as well do something good," he says, wondering how many other children at other schools are hungry on weekends.
The churches can provide 60 weekend packs, but there are 180 Barnes families in need. That means each household receives a pack every three weeks. Al Schmitt, who manages the Holy Trinity food closet, would like to build up the program so children can get a backpack every other week, maybe every week. He is hopeful that the weekend nourishment is helping build young brains at a crucial moment of development.
Schmitt is delighted over the partnership with Beaverton Foursquare. Members of that congregation provide funds for backpacks, while Holy Trinity augments the money and does the labor. Schmitt hopes to persuade more local churches to join.
Village Baptist already provides 10 filled backpacks on its own, but may team up with Holy Trinity.
The project comes in addition to the Holy Trinity food closet, the busiest emergency food distribution site in Washington County. Each week, about 100 families in need come to walk through the meticulously-organized pantry, pushing shopping carts and getting help from one of the project's 45 volunteers. The goal is respecting human dignity.
At Thanksgiving, families receive fixings for a meal, including a turkey. At Christmas, the parish provides 300 gifts. Families of veterans can get special Christmas meals. In addition to 5,000 pounds of supplies from the Oregon Food Bank each week, the food closet takes in a steady flow of donations from parishioners — 200 to 300 pounds per week. With cash donations, organizers purchase large quantities of essentials on sale.
Parish leaders, including Father Dave Gutmann, are big supporters of the ministry. To keep parishioners posted, Schmitt uses the church bulletin to post a running total of households served.
Schmitt, a member of Holy Trinity for 34 years, lost his position in a high-tech firm in 2009 after three decades in the field. Just as he was being offered a new lucrative position, he decided to apply his systems analysis expertise to charity instead.
These days, his office doubles as storage for donated food and clothing. He and wife Cathie, a Beaverton School District technology instructional aid, have scaled back retirement dreams.
Schmitt has worked on the flow and efficiency of the food bank, allowing it to serve more people with the same effort. That's good, because need has escalated 10 percent annually over the past decade.
"We keep meeting people who are coming to us for the first time," Schmitt says. "They say, 'I had a house. I had a good job. I was buying cars.' But they lose a job and have medical challenges that drain them."
On this day, Pam Thompson has come to augment her supplies. A Beaverton grandmother, Thompson often must decide between paying her bills and eating.
"It helps me get through the month," she says, laying a hand on her pile of free groceries.
Just a moment later, a military veteran comes to get food for his family for the first time. The retired soldier, wounded in battle three times, gets misty-eyed as he thanks Schmitt.
"Merry Christmas," the man says quietly as he walks quickly out the door. "Merry Christmas to all of you."