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Idaho’s poor still ache for food

Snowy Day At Oasis Food Center

This food pantry in Caldwell is one of the busiest in the state. Last year, it served more than 68,000 people.
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This food pantry in Caldwell is one of the busiest in the state. Last year, it served more than 68,000 people.

One day after 9/11, Royce Wright and his wife, Carol, opened Oasis Food Center in Caldwell.

They gave away eight hot dogs and eight bags of food, said Royce Wright, who pastors Oasis Worship Center, a nondenominational descendant of a church he and Carol established in 1982.

“The church was going for a while, and my wife and I had determined we wanted to help our community and not just be like a lot of organizations where you just tell them to send money,” he said. “We wanted to have an effect on people. Because the guy I work with (God) thinks people are pretty important.”

Last year, Oasis gave food to more than 68,000 people, Wright said. Oasis is a “choice pantry” — meaning people don’t just receive a bag of food when they show up. They grab shopping carts and form a line to pick out a variety of items: fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables, meats, grains, etc. Volunteers and employees hand out quantities based on the number of people in each household. The process repeats every Wednesday and Thursday.

The rest of the time, Wright and his team scour for food. They get it from a variety of sources, including The Idaho Foodbank, local grocery stores and farmers.

“We gather food all week long to get rid of food,” Wright said.

LOGISTICS AND OUTREACH

The Great Recession is officially over, but the lines for free food keep getting longer.

This is true across Idaho, not just at Oasis. Last year, The Idaho Foodbank, which distributes food to satellite pantries across the state, delivered almost twice as many meals as in 2010.

The food bank distributed almost as much food over the last six years as it did its first quarter-century of existence, spokesman Mike Sharp said.

Part of this increase comes from the supply side. Simply put, The Idaho Foodbank and the pantries it supplies are better at getting food to people who need it. Some of that is due to logistics and some is because of programs such as Backpack and Picnic in the Park, which provide schoolchildren with food on the weekends and during the summer, as well as Mobile Pantry, which sends a truckload of food to rural towns and places that might not have a permanent pantry.

“You’re talking thousands of pounds of food that is being distributed that otherwise wouldn’t have reached those people,” Sharp said.

Food insecurity: the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

RECOVERY?

Demand is the other side of Idahoans’ increasing reliance on food pantries. On any given day, Sharp said, roughly 250,000 families here need food assistance.

That number will decline, he said, but more slowly than the pace at which the overall economy improves.

“What we’re seeing is that even the people who are maybe gainfully employed that weren’t gainfully employed before, maybe they’re paying off mortgages, paying off medical debt that stacked up, maybe credit card debt,” he said.

Martin Orr was less optimistic.

“The idea that the Great Recession is over is, I think, a myth,” said Orr, a sociology professor at Boise State University. “About 85 percent of financial assets are owned by the top 10 percent of the population. So when the market does good, that doesn’t mean that everybody else necessarily does as well.”

Wright has a theory as to why demand for food assistance seems to be increasing. He thinks stagnating income at the bottom of the wage scale has combined with a rising cost of living to push more and more people to the edge of food insecurity.

Orr thinks Wright is right about household money.

“It’d be surprising if it weren’t the case,” Orr said. “I mean, for the bottom 40 percent of households, real incomes are down since 1979. Most people are making less in purchasing power than they were quite a while ago.”

In 1973, you could maintain a middle-class existence with one adult working, and now it takes at least two. And so more time is being devoted to the paid economy, less to our household economies.

Martin Orr, Boise State University sociology professor

Orr said food insecurity is one component of “a fairly steady downward slide” in the financial well-being of America’s working class. He believes that slide is the result of decades of political decisions to cut the country’s social programs and taxes on the rich without making the minimum wage keep pace with the cost of living.

“It’s food insecurity. It’s insecurity in terms of housing. The price of tuition is going up and up and up. The price of health care is going up and up and up,” Orr said. “The inflation numbers that we get from the federal government are kind of cooked because they pull out the things that most of us spend most of our money on, like food and housing and energy and so on. People’s actual purchasing power keeps taking hit after hit after hit.”

THE FRESH-FROZEN REVOLUTION

The good news is that the sustenance people are receiving from Oasis Food Center and other pantries is healthier than it was just a few years ago.

In Oasis’ early years, Wright said, 80 percent of the food he handed out was canned, with 20 percent frozen or fresh. Today, those numbers are flipped.

Sharp said The Idaho Foodbank’s meals have undergone a similar, though less extreme, shift. Fresh and frozen foods and vegetables tend to have better nutritional value because canned foods sometimes lose vitamins and other nutrients during the canning process, and some have added salt.

Grocery stores, in particular, are helping deliver more fresh and frozen foods to pantries because they’re doing a better job of giving food that’s about to expire to food pantries instead of throwing it in the trash, Wright said.

That makes storage more difficult, and food safety is a bigger concern with fresh or frozen food. But that’s a good problem, Wright said, because it’s still healthier.

Wright said he’s bringing more food into his operation than ever, which is good because more people seem to need it. He doesn’t promote Oasis, but he’s not hiding it, either, and he’s not worried about running out of food.

“I lie awake at night thinking, ‘You know, we’ve got a lot of food in here. There must be a lot of people that need that,’ ” Wright said.

How to help

If you have food in your cabinet that you aren’t using, donate it. If you feel more comfortable donating food than money, donate food.

The best way to maximize your donation is to give money to The Idaho Foodbank, which buys in bulk from grocery stores and farmers, so it gets a better price, spokesman Mike Sharp said.

Volunteering can be just as important as donating, Sharp said, because it saves money The Idaho Foodbank would otherwise spend on employees.

Contact a local pantry or call The Idaho Foodbank at (208) 336-9643 if you’re interested in donating or volunteering.

Check IdahoStatesman.com for details on Foodbank programs and ways you can help.

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