Hunger Sweeps through Pacific Northwest

Visits to food banks are on the rise in Washington state and Oregon, as the economic downturn continues to reverberate. With their lower earning power and higher likelihood of being caretakers, women in particular are at risk.

Northwest Harvest

EVERETT, Wash. (WOMENSENEWS)-In a crowded parking lot one hour north of Seattle, shoppers load bags of apples, potatoes, beans, rice and other goods into their cars. The activity on this brisk fall day mirrors that of the QFC supermarket down the road. But this is not a supermarket, it's a food bank.

Washington state has the second-highest hunger rate in the nation after Oregon,according to a three-year study released earlier this year by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management. With the number of people at risk for hunger increasing, experts agree that single mothers are disproportionately affected.

Volunteers of America Western Washington distributes 350,000 pounds of food each month through 35 agencies. Virginia Sprague, director of its food banks, estimates 75 percent of the group's adult clients are single mothers, many of whom were once the beneficiaries of a booming economy. Only 5 percent of people visiting food banks in the area receive federal assistance.

Social service workers are alarmed by the changing face of hunger in the state.

“What concerns me is that our donors are becoming our clients,” says Shelley Rotondo, executive director of Northwest Harvest, which provides food to 270 programs statewide. Donations, she says, are down about 30 percent over last year.

Sprague agrees that people who once donated food and money to her programs are now standing in line for food. For the first time ever, her food banks will not offer holiday food baskets this year. Instead of the standard turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie filling and other holiday items, the hungry will get the usual fare of rice, beans, produce and possibly chicken. Sprague says she sees no other option, as demand is expected to increase by 20 to 25 percent in the first quarter of 2003.

“I don't think we've seen the worst of it yet,” Rotondo says. “The economy is slow to recover, and the longer things go on, the more people use up what resources they have.”

Hunger Spreads to Educated Suburban Dwellers

One in five Washington state residents, or 1.2 million people, visited a food bank between July 2001 and July 2002, up 13 percent over the year before, according to the state Emergency Food Assistance Program. The amount of food people are taking home is up as well. In 2002, the state's hunger-relief program distributed 79.9 million pounds of food-10 million pounds more than in 2001.

Tough economic times can also take an emotional toll. Food banks that offer social-service referrals are reporting increases in domestic violence over last year. In the Seattle suburb of Northshore, workers at HopeLink, a food distributor that provides counseling and other services, reported on a recent day that four battered women had come in seeking help.

“When there are no jobs and tough financial times, domestic violence will follow,” says Win Hogben, Hopelink's director of emergency services. “It's a slippery slope once you're on it.”

In this picturesque Northwest state most often associated with Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks, stereotypes about hunger are being turned on their head. Some 50 percent more food bank recipients in Washington state have a college degree compared to the national average, according to Food Lifeline, a major food-distribution network in Western Washington. In the wealthy suburbs around Seattle, as many as one in five children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. An overwhelming number of people who visit food banks in the state-87 percent-are not homeless. More than half who visit food banks are women; of those, many are single moms or elderly women. More than 40 percent of food bank recipients are children.

Washington state now has the highest unemployment rate in the nation after Alaska, at 6.7 percent. The effects of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks continue to ripple through the local economy. Everett is the home of aerospace giant Boeing, which recently laid off more than 30,000 workers and plans to cut another 5,000 jobs next year. Nearly every sector of the economy-tourism, telecommunications, fishing, timber, dot-com and software-is in a continued slump. Meanwhile, the populous western part of the state has the second-fastest rise in cost of living increases in the country, up 65 percent over the past five years.

‘It Can't Happen to Me'

Cathy McLaren is one of the women affected by the recession and high cost of living in Washington state. With two daughters ages 15 and 9 still under her roof, McLaren, 40, is struggling to make ends meet. She works as a nursing assistant 19 hours a week for $8.42 an hour (experts say a living wage in Everett is $17.50 an hour). She is looking for another job to supplement the one she has, but is having trouble finding anything. Her electricity is routinely cut off, though her rent is subsidized. When she can't pay the heating bill, she borrows money from her parents.

McLaren has no health insurance, and suffers from chronic pain from a car accident at age 14 that left her in a coma for seven weeks. She does not qualify for disability. Food stamps only cover about two weeks out of her household's monthly food needs. She has been relying on the Volunteers of America food bank to feed her family each month for the past four years.

“Sometimes I think I just don't have the strength to fight anymore,” McLaren says. “But then, instead of thinking, ‘I can't, I can't,' I think, ‘I can, I can.'”

Hunger among the working poor or the recently laid off isn't restricted to the Pacific Northwest. The leading causes of hunger in the United States are low-paying jobs, unemployment and high housing and medical care costs, according to a 2001 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Women tend to be more at risk of hunger than men because more women work low-wage jobs. Women also find it more difficult to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty because they tend to care for dependent children.

Katrina Ryder, a 29-year-old mother of four young boys, is making her second trip to this food bank to get cereal, bread, applesauce and other basics for her kids. Her husband was laid off from his job as a co-op warehouse manager, leaving the family with little to fall back on. He took on a paper route during those months, and though it didn't pay all the bills, it helped. He was just rehired back at the warehouse, but Ryder says that the family is still recovering from those months without a paycheck.

“It's impossible to get by; those months were really hard,” she says.

“The biggest myth is, ‘It can't happen to me,'” says Linda Nageotte, chief executive officer of Food Lifeline. “Well, it can happen and it has happened to 660,000 people in Western Washington.”

Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief for Women's Enews.

For more information:

Volunteers of America, Western Washington:

Northwest Harvest: