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Hunger increases among U.S. working poor

BEND, ORE. — BEND, Ore. - Despite working full time as a waitress at an International House of Pancakes restaurant, Crystal Carter must regularly turn to charities and friends to feed herself and her three small children.

Likewise, Leslie Ramaekers finds it difficult to stretch the wages from her full-time auto-detailing job to buy a sufficient supply of food. She often skips breakfast and lunch to ensure that her four children can eat.

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Randy Malone has it even worse. His 25-pound weight loss is a byproduct of having been forced by a job layoff 1 1/2 years ago to use his sparse resources to feed his two nieces and nephew who live with him.

"I don't normally eat breakfast or lunch. Sometimes for dinner I might get a peanut butter sandwich or a piece of bread," said Malone, 42, who was picking up a bag of free groceries from a food pantry in Portland one day this summer.

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"I'd rather them eat it than me," he added, referring to the children, ages 7 to 12.

Officials in several cities around the nation, reporting on average a 19 percent increase in demand for emergency assistance from 2001 to 2002, say that Carter, Ramaekers and Malone represent the new face of hunger in America.

The ranks of the hungry more and more include single mothers stuck in low-wage jobs, married couples who can't keep up with soaring housing costs and able-bodied people who can't find jobs.

Their predicament forces them to grapple every month with vexing trade-offs: Pay the rent or child care? Buy that prescription for a sick child or pay that overdue electric bill? Gas for the car or food on the table?

"We're seeing Depression-era food lines in 21st-century America. This is the most food-productive nation on the planet, and we should not have hunger," said Doug O'Brien, vice president for policy and research at Chicago-based America's Second Harvest, the umbrella organization for the nation's food banks and the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S.

The previous profile of a hungry person, O'Brien said, was "a homeless, chronically unemployed, mentally ill, substance abuser."

But by 2001, "we were as likely to see a single mother who's employed as we would a homeless man," he said. "Nationwide, 40 percent of the people we serve come from households where at least one person is working."

Experts peg the number of hungry or "food-insecure" people at about 34 million, up from 30 million in 1995. Hunger and food insecurity are defined broadly - when people are forced to skip a meal or cut back on what they eat because they lack money, when people don't know where their next meal is coming from, when they must visit a soup kitchen or food pantry for emergency aid.

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Demand for emergency food rose sharply from 2001 to 2002 in about 25 cities polled late last year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Requests for food jumped 28 percent in Chicago, 25 percent in Los Angeles, 14 percent in Cleveland, 10 percent in New Orleans, 49 percent in Miami and 52 percent in Kansas City.

The issue has been receiving attention in recent months. Oregon, Wisconsin, Virginia and West Virginia have stepped up their outreach to hungry people who might qualify for assistance through food stamp programs.

And two bills have been introduced in Congress to expand the number of children eligible for free school meal programs.

A study released in July by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Brandeis University suggested that hunger is related to the epidemic of obesity.

The study said that low-income families "may consume low-cost foods with relatively higher levels of calories per dollar to stave off hunger" rather than more nutritious food when their resources run short.

No state better exemplifies the crisis than Oregon, ranked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as No. 1 in hunger and food insecurity.

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Oregon, which prospered in the 1990s from the dot-com boom and with an image as a recreation-friendly and environmentally conscious state, hardly seems a candidate for hunger capital of the nation.

But the state, which also ranks at or near the top in unemployment, has been in an economic meltdown. It has made drastic spending cuts for schools, health care, social programs and courts to relieve a nearly $3 billion deficit.

As serious as the budget problems are, according to experts, the current crisis is the product of a systemic shift as low-paying, low-skilled jobs in the service industry replaced high-paying, low-skilled jobs in the timber and fishing industries.

Situated in central Oregon, Bend reflects that wage gap and economic metamorphosis.

For generations, this region was timber country with an abundance of family-run mills. But from 1989 to 1997, jobs in the forest industry declined by 47 percent in central Oregon. Now only one family-run mill is left.

During that same time, dozens of golf courses, spas, mountain lake and ski lodges and new housing developments sprang up, transforming central Oregon into a resort and an upscale retirement area.

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"A lot of people say it's going to be another Aspen, Colo.," said Carter, the IHOP waitress, who often visits a food pantry to feed her two daughters and son.

"There's no middle class here," added Carter, who was sitting at her kitchen table and expressing gratitude that she had eaten a potluck dinner in her apartment complex that evening. "Either you have money or you don't."

"Instead of making $17 an hour in a mill, the most people can get around here [in the retail, resort and restaurant jobs] is around minimum wage," said Sweet Pea Cole, a coordinator for the Central Oregon Community Action Agency, where Carter receives her free food.

Advocates for the poor assert that Oregon officials were largely in denial about the state's hunger problem - until this year.

But when Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski took office in January, he made fighting hunger a priority of his administration.

The Democrat is appearing in public-service TV announcements to raise awareness about the problem. The governor is also calling for more affordable housing. And he recently signed legislation to refurbish crumbling bridges and highways, a measure that would create 5,000 new jobs annually for 10 years.


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