With Portland’s ubiquitous farmers markets, a committed locavore “foodie” movement, and the great luck of being located in the Willamette Valley—home to some of the most fertile soil on the planet—how could the Rose City possibly face any food security issues? But the facts don’t lie. According to the Multnomah Food Action Plan, adopted by the County Board of Commissioners in January 2011, there are 36,000 people in the county who access emergency food boxes each month. Over half of county adults are overweight or obese. Nearly one-third of county children rely on food assistance programs.

Portland faces the same food security issues as the rest of the country, even the rest of the world. However, most people aren’t aware that it doesn’t really cost all that much to end world hunger, depending on your perspective.

 

We're Talking About Peanuts

If it only takes peanuts to feed the world, then why are there long lines for meals at Blanchet House in Portland?
If it only takes peanuts to feed the world, then why are there long lines for meals at Blanchet House in Portland?

The United Nations has determined that by 2015, $195 billion per year will be needed to ensure everyone around the world has enough food to eat. This is a lot of money—more than everyone you’ve ever met will see in their entire lifetimes combined. However, consider that the gross domestic product of the world is $63 trillion, and perhaps now your perspective has changed. 

In other words, it takes peanuts to feed the world peanuts.

Granted, we would need that $195 billion each year. Still, $30 billion dollars is less than one-quarter of President Obama’s stimulus plan. It’s barely half of Wal-Mart’s total net sales in 2010. It’s such a pitiful amount that it’s embarrassing hunger persists on this planet.

Although there is enough food on the planet to provide for everyone, we have seen food riots in recent years—both in developing and developed countries. Commodity prices have risen as speculators consider food to be the next “bubble.” The oil deposits that fuel the petro-chemical fertilizer industry—not to mention shipping products in our global, “just in time” food system—are becoming scarce, while aquifers dry up and soil loses its fertility due to generations of what Wes Jackson refers to“petri-dish capitalism.” And as a burgeoning middle class in Asia develops a taste for meat, global hunger makes sense.

 

Demand for Dietary Assistance is the 'New Normal' 

Volunteers fill emergency food boxes at Oregon Food Bank. Photo: Daniel Root
Volunteers fill emergency food boxes at Oregon Food Bank. Photo: Daniel Root

So, Portland is not immune to the food security issues that impact the rest of the globe. But, considering the number of stores, markets and gardens in the area, there is enough food to feed everyone. The problem, of course, is economics. At a recent anti-hunger conference in Corvallis, it was repeatedly pointed out that people who are unable to provide for themselves go hungry. And with unemployment at 8 percent in the Portland metro area, a lot of people are unable to provide for themselves.

Of course, the metro area’s unemployment rate is better than the state’s rate of 9 percent, and with such a high jobless percentage, it is easy to understand how the Oregon Food Bank recently passed the mark of one million emergency food boxes distributed statewide last year—that's one million emergency food boxes in a state with a population of less than four million. Such an increased demand for assistance by Oregonians to meet their dietary needs suggests that it is inappropriate to refer to this assistance as emergency.

“It’s indicative of a new normal,” Shawn DeCarlo, Metro Services Manager for the Oregon Food Bank, explained after presenting at the anti-hunger conference in Corvallis. “The number of food boxes doesn’t even represent the number of people who need help, because that’s basically half the population anyway.”

The line between what’s considered a “food emergency” and a normal state of affairs is dissolving. “We have a lot of folks having a hard time having enough food in the house for tonight, let alone the three days that Emergency Management strongly recommends,” says Jeremy O’Leary, webmaster for The Dirt!, which is the website for Transition PDX, a group devoted to planning for a post-peak oil Portland. O’Leary is concerned about food access in East Portland where “a startlingly large number of grocery stores have closed,” exacerbating food distribution issues on the city’s edges.

 

If There's Enough Food for Everyone, What's the Problem?

Food waste at a Metro transfer station. Photo: Metro
Food waste at a Metro transfer station. Photo: Metro

“Oregon suffers from the same problems with the food system as anywhere in the U.S.,” says Andy Fisher, the former Executive Director of the Community Food Security Coalition. “High rates of childhood hunger, higher than average rates of diet-related diseases among minority populations, rural deserts, and much more. Yes, there is sufficient food to feed everyone. By and large, hunger is a result of a lack of resources—whether they be monetary, land or access to safety net programs.”

And according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, up to half of our country’s food is lost to waste. While the numbers are not likely that high in the Portland metro region, a substantial portion of food ends up in our area’s landfills.

“Residents and businesses in this region dispose an astonishing 206,172 tons of food annually,” says Jennifer Erickson from Metro’s Sustainability Department. “That’s nearly 20 percent of what goes into the landfill.” Erickson decries the lack of respect for the tremendous resources that went into producing the food that is wasted. “This is especially egregious when considering how many Oregonians don’t have access to healthy, wholesome food—many of them children and the elderly.”

Financially, very little money is needed to address hunger in Portland, and Neighborhood Notes will examine the progress of the plans to confront economic factors and create a hunger-free Oregon. We will check in with individuals and organizations who are taking the necessary steps to tackle overlooked issues of the local food system. And we will meet with the activists and advocates who are pushing for a systemic overhaul of how we produce and distribute food as they seek sustainable solutions to local food security issues. 

Our monthly food security series, Food for Thought, will examine these and other local food system issues, so we invite you to leave your comments, concerns, and topics you'd like us to explore below.

Correction 1/30/2012: The article initially stated that the Oregon Food Bank distributed one million emergency food boxes per month. It distributed one million emergency food boxes from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.