Episode 202: The Hunger Project — Jen Carter

Episode 202: The Hunger Project — Jen Carter

Oregon is the only state in the nation that keeps getting hungrier.

Jen Carter knows about hunger. Not as the former Kitchen Manager of a drop-in center for homeless youth. Not as the new Program Assistant for Metro HomeShare. Not as a current Advisor the Hunger Free Leadership Institute (H-FLI). But as a former fellow for H-FLI, Jen understands.

“The women in my family have had the urge to feed with each successive generation. The need for extra food passed down in the genes with wide hips and a love for butter. Gardens became a family tradition,” Jen wrote in her application essay for acceptance into the H-FLI fellowship. “I was never conscious of not having enough as a child. There was always food. There were treats that tasted of soil and the delta breeze. My parents fought over debt, borrowed money from grandparents, took a second job cleaning houses — but there were enough fresh strawberries to stain your lips red.” 

The essay moves on to explain that while people go hungry, there is enough food through farms and personal gardens. However, we lack the resources required for harvesting and delivering that food to the needy. A boilerplate at the bottom of the article points to the state’s nationally leading Farm to School and School Garden Programs as answers. Recently on the chopping block, a bill supporting grant funding for these two programs passed unanimously in this summer’s legislature, preserving the 4.5 million program for schools statewide.

H-FLI may have been part of that successful outcome. Created by Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, the Institute is an eight-month training program that empowers and supports community leaders (“fellows”) in their quest to end hunger on a local-level. Jen discusses how the fellows are representative of the communities they serve. Many have experienced hunger firsthand, whether that be through working in a food pantry or receiving its services.

With Oregon coming in as the country’s sixth hungriest state and the only state that’s experienced an increase in hunger over the last few years, we need people like Jen in our corner.

“Each year we are getting hungrier, but we have one of the best Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs [SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps] in the nation. Why?” Jen rhetorically asks. “The rise in cost of living isn’t being matched with the rise in wages. As rents increase, access to food decreases.”

Through the conversation I discovered that getting access to food isn’t always a given, depending on where you are, how your population is voting, the cost of your rent and even the color of your skin.

Many of you already know that women, especially of the single variety, hold a spot on the list of the disproportionately hungry in Oregon, but Jen dives a little deeper, painting a picture of what hungry looks like here.

Rural populations — These communities see a lot of “underemployment,” which means that their employment is often seasonal and unstable. While Portland offers programs to address this, many other areas do not because food is legislated differently throughout the state. However, the Oregon Food Bank is stepping in to help these communities with an eastern Oregon office and Partners for Hunger Free Oregon also spearheads initiatives for these communities.

Minorities — Jen says that 30-40 percent of African Americans are hungry in Oregon. These massively disproportionate numbers are caused by systemic racism that has continuously displaced African Americans. Not only were blacks banned from owning property in the early days, there were restrictions on where you could live. The allowable areas constantly moved, making it nearly impossible for many to build up equity.

Even recently, minorities are being displaced. Take the Memorial Coliseum for example: established African American neighborhoods were torn down during its construction. This type of gentrification is still happening today in North and Northeast Portland.

Constantly being on the move can take a massive toll on vulnerable populations. Not only does it deter equity — imagine being pushed into an area where you don’t know your neighbors, can no longer walk to your store and must find a new place of worship. Your entire community and network is displaced. Moreover, costly rental deposits and multiple application fees are paid with every move — probably coming out of your family’s food budget.

Seniors — The rise in housing costs mean more and more seniors are going without. When burdened between choosing food and medication, housing, or transportation, many will forgo the food. Wouldn’t you rather skip a meal than spend a night on the streets?

Jen’s new position as Program Assistant for Metro HomeShare can help ease that burden for seniors and others. Through the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, the group helps Home Providers stabilize and retain their housing, while offering access to affordable rent or services to Home Seekers.

Part movement and part organization, as Jen defines it, HomeShare’s ingenious response to rising home costs is to play matchmaker — connecting people who need a place to live with people who need help paying the rent or mortgage. Extra services could also be part of the package. The elderly, busy, or disabled can incorporate home maintenance and maybe even errands into the agreement. HomeShare puts it all together.

Beyond groups like HomeShare, there are many resources available that aren’t being utilized by everyone who needs them. The reasons stem beyond the idea that people don’t know about them (although that might sometimes be the case), and can be pointed to situations such as:

  • Unreliable access to transportation.
  • Working two jobs, therefore unable to visit during open hours.
  • Recent immigrants battling fears of needing to identify themselves. Although most food pantries (including the Oregon Food Bank) do not check identification.
  • General government mistrust that’s been passed down through family history with foster care or law enforcement.

How can people help?

Jen advises us to first visit: www.oregonhunger.org to see what kind of help is needed. However, the ideas she rattled off included:

  • Volunteering for the Oregon Food Bank.
  • Asking how your local food pantry needs help.
  • Harvesting once a month for a community garden.
  • Participating in letter writing campaigns.
  • Calling your local representative to state your opinion on issues affecting hunger.

This is Episode 202 of StreetTalk, a podcast about Portland’s ever-changing communal landscape.

Episode 201: The Hunger Project — Kyle Camberg

Episode 201: The Hunger Project — Kyle Camberg

“Hunger Isn’t Seasonal,” Kyle Camberg, Sunshine Division.

The Hunger Project, Kyle Camberg

Kyle Camberg, Executive Director of the Portland Police Bureau Sunshine Divison

I was so happy to have gotten the chance to interview my friend Kyle Camberg, Executive Director for the Sunshine Division, as I launched my first foray into the growing issue of feeding Portland’s needy on StreetTalk’s new series; The Hunger Project. I have worked Kyle in many capacities and can say that he’s the PR person’s dream when it comes to creating joint marketing campaigns between nonprofits and corporations. Veracity is lucky to have clients that want to get involved with the community in meaningful ways. Sure, writing checks is important, but it’s the physical act of doing something that is the PR person’s gold because this is what garners more “ink.” This mindset comes naturally to Kyle as we work together to create community relations campaigns that help others, while showing Veracity’s clients in a positive light and, most importantly, educating the masses.

Education is exactly what we are attempting to do with this second StreetTalk series we are calling The Hunger Project. Did you know that a staggering 75% of students qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch in east Portland districts? Portland itself hovers around 46%, “which isn’t great but it’s considerably better,” Kyle says in the latest episode of StreetTalk.

Portland Sunshine Division Meeting the Growing Needs of Portland

About the Sunshine Division

We begin by delving into the Sunshine Division’s unique history, which was started by a few Portland police officers in 1923 in response to the area’s growing need for food. The officers smartly kept their idea separate from any governmental entity because “they didn’t want a politician coming in to mess things up,” Kyle recalls a retired police officer saying.

The Sunshine Division is its own nonprofit organization which strategically partners with the Portland Police Bureau to keep police precincts armed with food boxes so that officers can easily deliver them to needy individuals whenever the need arises. A food and clothing bank that is open to qualifying individuals six-days-a-week allows the group to participate in school backpack and outreach programs; while also providing resources to neighboring charities in and around Portland. While the Sunshine Division utilizes in-kind donations from the police department, such as delivery trucks and a major volunteer pool in the police officers themselves, it does not benefit from any federal grant money; relying on generous benefactors instead.

Hunger is a Moving Target

With Portland’s skyline morphing through the buzz of construction, tourists flock to the City of Roses while more and more companies move international workforces to what used to be an underground, sleepy Pacific Northwest town. However, our city’s popularity is taking its toll on vulnerable populations. With rents rising in areas that used to be affordable, diverse populations are pushed out.

Portland Sunshine Division Meeting the Growing Needs of Portland

“As you head east of the river, the need just grows,” says Kyle. “Gentrification has taken hold.” That’s why after 94 years, the Sunshine Division is opening a second location east of I-205, located at 12429 SE Stark St. “This pocket of Portland was annexed and forgotten, without many services. It’s a suffering part of the city.”

The second location will enable the Sunshine Division to reach the school districts needing them the most — Centennial, David Douglas, Parkrose and Reynolds — expanding their reach to serve not just Portland but surrounding areas like Gresham, Fairview and Milwaukie; where according to Kyle the level of poverty is higher.

PPS Cuts Lunch Programs at 12 Schools

I brought up a rumor I’d read in the Oregonian about Portland Public Schools (PPS) cutting free lunches for all students at 12 schools this year. Kyle replied that he couldn’t represent PPS and that details may still be up in the air. I clarified that families who can go through the red tape, showing they qualify, will still gain access to the free lunches for their children.

But in the recent past if 40 percent* of families within a school were served by income-restricted programs, like food stamps, a federal program gave these schools funding to provide free meals to all students. This easy access to school day meals was probably a godsend for children whose parents weren’t able to fill out the qualifying paperwork. Kyle and I expanded on the point that many immigrants and refugees can’t participate in the hurdles of paper for various reasons including documentation concerns as well as cultural and linguistic barriers. What will these kids do if their qualifying families do not fill out the paperwork?

Additional questions stem from this lunchtime news out of PPS. What will the qualifications for summer and backpack programs be? Will it be harder for working poor to access these? It is becoming evident that the need for programs like the Sunshine Division is more crucial than ever. The broader capacity for outreach that a second location brings to the Sunshine Division will help refer needy families to the vital services they offer. 

The Non-Seasonality of Hunger

The main reason I wanted to jump on this issue of hunger right now is because one of the first things I learned while creating community relations campaigns for clients was that summer is a really hard time for hungry kids. During the school year they can get up to two meals a day for either free or reduced cost. But what do they do in the summer when access to free food isn’t a given? Yes, there are summer food programs but how do these kids travel to them? They may be miles away from these programs, without an able adult taking them. Stranded inside of their hunger.

The time to get involved is now or “any of the ten-and-a-half months of the year that aren’t around the holidays,” says Kyle. Amazingly the Sunshine Division has turned volunteers away during the holidays. While they always appreciate the help, the education needs to begin now. “Hunger is not seasonal,” as Kyle has coined before. This is a year-round problem that needs everyone’s attention now and ongoing.

Three Ways to Help

Kyle lays out three main ways to help any food relief charity.

  1. Volunteerism. The Sunshine Division is open six-days-a-week, putting generous volunteers to work on a daily basis running a retail operation (that is free for qualifying public), warehouse and public intake. You can either volunteer as an individual on a regular basis or as a group for a special one-time experience. School, corporations and community groups value the bonding that can occur when volunteering together.
  1. Host a food drive. This is the kind of thing I am talking about from a PR point-of view. Hosting a food drive either in your location or through your networks is a very active way to involve your audience in an issue you may care deeply about while also allowing your PR person to leverage your good-deeds through earned media.

The Sunshine Division has a wonderful partnership with The Barbers hair chain, which asks their customers to donate a dollar or more during a six-week time period. The funds are then given to the Sunshine Division to buy peanut butter—a solid, concrete item that the public can not only wrap their heads around but a visual that a PR person can turn into a press conference, photo opportunity, or press release to say the very least. Advantis Credit Union does something similar with a canned tuna drive each year.

  1. Donate. Financial contributions keep invaluable nonprofits like the Sunshine Division running. Kyle explains that you can’t run a charity without financial resources. If that were possible, the charity would actually be a volunteer organization that would likely display less in results and output. But Kyle qualifies this statement by saying “we are lean and mean.” With only 11 on staff, 94 years in existence and on its way to expanding its geographic reach through a second location, the Sunshine Division must be doing something right.

*I believe I misquoted this figure in the interview at 80%. No one said I was a numbers person.

This is Episode 201 of StreetTalk, a podcast about Portland’s ever-changing communal landscape.