The battle against hunger in Lane County

by Anna Bird

Eugene, Oreg. – It is approaching 3:00 on a crisp, but surprisingly sunny November afternoon. The sun is starting to hang low, and threatens to cast all of downtown Eugene in shadow for the evening. Outside the Dining Room a line has already formed alongside the brick wall of the building, and winds its way around the edge of the small parking lot. People are bundled in weathered layers and coats that have seen too many winters. At their feet are bags packed so tightly they are on the verge of breaking, giving tired shoulders a break. It is cold, but fortunately not raining. 

 The Dining Room is a restaurant in downtown Eugene run by the Family Dinner Program—one of the many FOOD for Lane County programs set up to alleviate hunger in our community. FOOD for Lane County (FFLC) is a private nonprofit food bank located just outside of the Churchill neighborhood on West 11th Avenue in Eugene.  With a struggling economy and high unemployment rates, the hunger problem is a dense and complex issue with many contributing factors and obstacles. FFLC serves all of Lane County, which encompasses a total of 12 cities and a population of 351,715, with about 10 different programs that work together to overcome those obstacles and relieve hunger.

Since the 2008 Recession, massive job loss coupled with rising costs in food, gas, housing and health benefits have left many Oregon residents and families food insecure. The financial burden has forced many folks to seek out food assistance programs provided by organizations like the Oregon Food Bank, FOOD for Lane County, and many other agencies fighting hunger.

Food insecurity is the point at which an individual does not know where or when they will get their next meal. In 2011 the USDA reported Oregon food insecurity at 13.6 percent. Many of those who suffer from food insecurity turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, otherwise referred to as SNAP or food stamps. SNAP benefits are meant to provide access to nutritious foods for low-income households, and in the last five years the number of Oregon residents using food stamps has risen to 808,817—an 86 percent increase since 2007, according to the Oregon Food Bank.

On a more local scale, FFLC cites more than one in three Lane County residents who qualify for food assistance, which means that close to 40 percent live at or below 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. And in 2011, a total of 68,048 individuals in Lane County received Emergency Food Box services—three- to five-day supplies of donated groceries. Most households wait until all other resources have run out before they access emergency food sources, and these resources include food stamps and WIC—the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

These numbers can provide only a glimpse into the very large and extensive hunger issue plaguing Oregon and Lane County residents and families. Across the board there is a growing need for programs like the Dining Room, which has tripled its number of patrons in the last year.

The Dining Room serves up to 300 free meals a night every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. During a three-hour period, a staff of 6, including a professional chef, and dozens of volunteers cater to families and individuals who are homeless or at-risk of being homeless. They serve hot, nutritious dinners along with coffee or tea, and dessert. The tables have mason jars with flowers for centerpieces, warm lighting and colorful murals along the walls.

Josie McCarthy, manager of the FFLC Family Dinner Program, didn’t want to operate a run-of-the-mill soup kitchen with people trudging through lines while volunteers slopped food on their trays. She wanted to create a true dining experience for her dinner guests in a safe and welcoming space.

“They (FOOD for Lane County) knew that when I turned it into a restaurant—we have cloth napkins—that it was about dignity,” McCarthy says. “We could serve slop and they wouldn’t care. They just feel like someone respects them, and someone gives them choices—which they don’t get.”

Many of the patrons at the Dining Room are individuals, but a large number of them are families with small children. These families tend to be living out of their cars for the sake of keeping their families together through tough times, but the Dining Room is a place they can go to sit down at a table for a warm meal.

Childhood nutrition is another side of the overall hunger issue with it’s own relevance and impact. Hunger and food insecurity can have hugely negative impacts on a child’s health, and can be linked to developmental, behavioral and academic problems.

“The problem with child nutrition is that you can’t backburner it,” says Karen Roth, the Child Nutrition Manager for FFLC. “You can’t have a child go without nutrients for a year and then expect them to be able to make up the growth they lost—they never will.”

Roth and FFLC tackle child nutrition problems through the Summer Food Program, Cereal for Youth, and the Children’s Weekend Snack Pack program. During the school year, students have access to consistent daily nutrition through their school lunch programs. This access is widespread thanks to the Free and Reduced Price Meals provided to kids from lower-income families. However, when school is let out for the summer, many children lose this easy access to consistent meals. That’s where the Summer Food Program comes in.

For 11 weeks out of the summer, Roth, along with two assistants and 125 School Lunch Program employees, administers free lunch to thousands of kids under the age of 18 across Lane County. On any given day one of the 67 sites could range from 15-150 kids. Roth hires 125 people during this time as cooks, drivers, site supervisors, and warehouse workers.

Because the Summer Food Program is free for all kids under the age of 18, it is a way to guarantee parents one more meal a day for their kids. That consistency and stability is vital to the childhood nutrition. Roth has had many parents tell her that the Summer Food Program helped them and their families get through tough times.

“It’s really an amazing feeling to go out and visit a site, and see those kids and how happy they are to see a meal waiting for them,” Roth says. “It can turn a cranky child into a happy child.”

The Family Dinner Program and the Child Nutrition programs are only two of the several FFLC programs dedicated to alleviating hunger in Lane County. And both Josie McCarthy and Karen Roth agree that education is the greatest hope we have in the battle against hunger. A large part of FFLC works to educate the community about their programs, so more families and individuals will know what their options are when budgets get tight, and so community members who aren’t struggling know what they can do to help those in need.

A dinner guest of the Dining Room

Treesa Caudell stands patiently in the long line for the Dining Room. Her vibrant, hot pink puffy coat stands out in the crowd while she smiles and chats idly with some of the other regulars. She comes every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and every day she arrives more than an hour early to get a good spot in line.

For Caudell, a convicted felon and recovering drug addict, it is the good food and nice people that keep her coming back night after night. She has been coming to the Dining Room since it opened nine years ago.

She matter-of-factly admits that she did drugs for 35 years, and after getting involved in an abusive relationship, was homeless for 10 years. She and her partner lived in a hut made of tarps on privately owned land in Springfield, and it was during this time she heard about the Dining Room.

“When you’re homeless you need something warm,” Caudell says.

After 35 years, she “got tired of (the drugs),” and decided to get her life back on track. She has been clean and sober for four and a half years now and lives in subsidized housing in South Eugene.

“I look back and I did have fun doing some of the things I did, but you got nothing to show for it,” she says of her drug-use.

When she’s at the Dining Room Caudell mostly keeps to herself, but sometimes tries to convince fellow patrons to get clean and sober. She has many food allergies that the Dining Room staff is aware of, and each night there is a specially prepared plate just for her. Her favorite meal is the BBQ pulled pork.

The Dining Room - photo by Anna Bird

The Dining Room – photo by Anna Bird

Servers at the Dining Room - photo by Anna Bird

Servers at the Dining Room – photo by Anna Bird

Cloth napkins - photo by Anna Bird

Cloth napkins – photo by Anna Bird

The Dining Room - photo by Anna Bird

The Dining Room – photo by Anna Bird

Centerpieces - photo by Anna Bird

Centerpieces – photo by Anna Bird

The Dining Room - photo by Anna Bird

The Dining Room – photo by Anna Bird

About Anna Bird

Journalism student at the University of Oregon. Writer and Assistant Editor for The Siren. Designer for Ethos Magazine.
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