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OR Food Security Summit: Tackling Hunger Together

January 19, 2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. - From nonprofit groups to government agencies, people are coming together at the Oregon Food Security Summit to discuss hunger as a symptom of a bigger problem: Oregon families who just aren't making it.

Food insecurity is also a public health issue, says Dr. Deborah Frank, professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, who traveled across the country to be a keynote speaker at the summit, which begins today at OSU in Corvallis. A children's health expert, Frank says the effects of not getting enough nutritious food start early and have lifelong consequences.

"Food insecurity is an insult to the developing brain as well as to the developing body. It starts influencing health in the womb. Children's bodies have trouble fighting infection, and these kids have to be hospitalized more than other children."

Frank says Oregon spends an estimated $2 billion a year more on health and learning than it would have to spend if every child in the state got enough to eat. According to a national report from the group Feeding America, 29 percent of Oregon children are food-insecure - the highest rate in the country.

One topic at the summit will be the threat of cuts to federal food programs in Congress, although one in four Americans now depends on them. Max Finberg directs the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He says those who believe churches and charities can fill the gaps may not realize that these groups, too, depend on federal dollars.

"If government funding was cut, it would be the churches and the mosques and the synagogues, the food banks, the pantries that are on the front lines, that would be first hit. And they'll be the first to tell you that they wouldn't be able to make up the difference."

Finberg says more than half the people on the SNAP or food stamps program are children and senior citizens.

Dr. Frank cites what's been called the "heat or eat" dilemma for people on a limited income - and food is the easiest budget item to trim. She says she is often frustrated by the nation's lack of progress in fighting hunger.

"This one is so easy. We have plenty of food; we have a good distribution network; we have programs that work. But they don't reach all the eligible, and the benefit levels for those they reach are often not realistically high enough for health. It's purely a matter of political will."

Summit discussions will focus on various aspects of poverty and how to improve the regional food system, from rural grocery stores to locally grown food. The Oregon Food Security Summit runs through Friday. Details, including how to participate remotely, are available at http://oregonstate.edu/conferences/event/2012hungersummit/.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR