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Church groups see brief window for anti-hunger effort

By Ed Langlois on January 15, 2013
© Catholic Sentinel

As Congress and the Oregon Legislature prepare to trim government budgets, anti-hunger advocates have begun a 60-day lobbying push. Faith groups stand among those saying cuts should not hurt people who are already poor and scrambling for food. 

“Today, one in five Oregonians is hungry,” said Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland. “We are better than that.” 

Cato was speaking at a Jan. 12 seminar jointly organized by the archdiocese, Catholic Charities, Bread for the World, the Presbyterian Church and the Oregon Center for Christian Voices. Those are some of the member organizations of a coalition called the Oregon Faith Roundtable Against Hunger.

“Our faith tradition calls us to build a society where people have food, no one is alone and poverty no longer exists,” Cato said. 

The number of Oregonians living below official poverty threshold is about 662,000. That’s more than the combined populations of Salem, Eugene, Medford, Gresham, Beaverton and Bend. 

The day, held at Catholic Charities’ Portland offices, drew more than 100 advocates. They heard stories like the one of a 17-year-old Bend girl who was spottily cared for and is now trying to raise her own toddler, who has a serious gland disorder. She depends on Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, a federally funded feeding program.

“Since 2009, programs for poor and hungry people have been under attack,” said Robin Stephenson of Bread for the World. Some federal lawmakers are proposing cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and WIC.

“Right now, we are in the biggest fight of our lives,” Stephenson told the group. She called food programs for people in poverty “low-hanging fruit” for budget cutters, who face few repercussions for depriving a group with little clout.  

Organizers urged those attending the conference to make calls, write letters and send emails to their lawmakers over the next two months as budgets take shape. 

“The only power we have is you in this room,” said Mike Hiland, a Sherwood computer programmer who volunteers with Bread for the World. He said personal contact from constituents has significant impact on lawmakers. 

Patti Whitney-Wise of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon explained that anti-poverty programs are good for the economy and the budget. People who are poor spend what they receive, boosting local businesses. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps the working poor, by itself brings $18 million into the Coos Bay area economy. 

Philip Kennedy-Wong, policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank, said distribution has increased by almost a third since the recession hit. The food bank, which supplies emergency service sites, now fills about a million food boxes per year. 

Kennedy-Wong and others are urging Gov. John Kitzhaber to change his proposed budget, which cuts the term of temporary state aid to needy families from five years to three. The recession has lasted four or five years, so limiting aid to three years does not make sense, Kennedy-Wong said. 

Howard Kenyon, director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s Northeast Emergency Food Program, is a doctorate holder who lost his job during the recession. He refuses to be skeptical about people who come seeking food. Poor people are not lazy, Kenyon said. The program he runs serves about 11,000 Oregonians per year. 

Joanne Dempsey started a pantry at Cornelius Methodist Church. The congregation of only several dozen had to build relationships with neighbors to succeed, Dempsey told the group. 

During the day, Cato read Walter Brueggeman’s prayer “We Are Takers,” which explores humans’ capacity to take more than they need because of fear and greed. “Turn our taking into giving,” he wrote, “since we are in your giving image.”

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