Battling food insecurity one meal at a time
Siskiyou County, Siuslaw region work to combat hunger
Tailgate parties are big in Siskiyou County, Calif. Every month from May through October, Great Northern Services throws a big party in four Northern California towns. What do they serve? Truckloads of fresh, free produce for low-income families.
The “tailgate produce parties” feature fresh goods donated by farmers through the state’s “Donate, Don’t Dump” program, including a variety of lettuces, strawberries, mushrooms — whatever the growing season brings. Clients are urged to take home as much as they can possibly use.
“People are taking it and preserving it so they can use it throughout the year,” says Heather Solus, community services director for Great Northern Services, a community-based nonprofit based in Weed, California.
It’s a boon for the area’s low-income residents, who live in one of the most “food insecure” counties in the entire country. The USDA defines food insecurity as the lack of access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Both Northern California and Oregon are posting alarmingly high rates.
Siskiyou County’s rate of food insecurity of 20%, for example, is one of the highest in the country. Only four U.S. counties post a higher rate, according to the USDA’s Map the Meal Gap for 2016. The national rate is 13%.
“The need is really great here,” Solus says. “Our county is really a food desert — some towns don’t even have a grocery store, and with low incomes and lack of transportation, people just don’t have the access they need.”
In Oregon, the numbers also reveal a troubling story. The state’s latest food insecurity rate of 16.1% reflects the sharpest increase in the country, even as the Oregon economy grew. That gives Oregon the sixth-worst state ranking for food insecurity, and means that nearly one in every six Oregonians lives without knowing where the next meal is coming from.
Communities step up
In an effort to combat the hunger problem, many community organizations are stepping up with comprehensive, innovative programs. Great Northern, for example, operates more than a half-dozen food-related programs that benefit Siskiyou County residents, from commodities distribution to nutritional cooking classes for adults.
Over on the Oregon coast, the Siuslaw Region Food System Team is starting work on a multi-pronged approach to increasing food security in the Siuslaw region. The group’s first step was to secure its own page in Lane County’s Locally Grown guide, listing farms, farmers market, restaurants and food bank gardens. The next step, says team coordinator Mary Shaw, is to establish a farmers market, which would help support local farmers while introducing residents to a source of fresh food.
The group is also working on plans to offer classes on cooking with fresh food. Several of the food banks in the area distribute produce from their own gardens, and there is a need for instruction on how to cook nutritious foods, Shaw says.
The group’s long-term goal is to help keep local farmlands in production. “We are slowly losing our mid-size farms as farmers retire,” Shaw says. “Young farmers really can’t afford to buy land, but there are some wonderful workarounds happening all over Oregon and Washington where farmland is being put in trust so young farmers can lease that land.
“It’s a very important issue for food security to keep those farms in farmland. That’s the big dream for us.”
The problem of hunger in rural areas is complicated sometimes by vast distances, coupled with a lack of public transportation. In Siskiyou County, that condition is leading to some innovative partnerships.
For the organization’s summer lunch program, for example, lunches are made in Weed and then driven to school sites, some of them hours away. When organizers began looking at expanding the program to other parts of the county, they also started looking at other ways to deliver the food. “We’ve reached out to UPS, public transit, even the sheriff’s office,” Solus says, “and no one has said no yet.”
With as many as one in every four children affected by food insecurity each day in Siskiyou County, Calif., schools are on the front lines of the war on hunger. A pilot program launched by Great Northern Services last year is helping combat the problem.
The snack bag program sponsors elementary school pantries stocked with kid-friendly food. Teachers are encouraged to send food home with children, many of whom don’t get breakfast or adequate food on weekends.
The day before extended school holidays, the program provides students with a full bag of easy-to-make food — oatmeal, cheese, fruits, veggies, bread, granola bars — so they would have at least one good meal a day throughout the break.
“One little girl was missing a lot of school because she kept going home sick,” says Heather Solus, the organization’s community services director. “We started grabbing snacks and feeding her before lunch, and she went home a lot less often.”
Great Northern hopes to expand it in coming years to any school in the county who requests a pantry. “We got really great comments from teachers, and requests from quite a few schools,” Solus says. “It’s another way we can provide a continuum of care so the kids always have something in their bellies.