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A New Take on Hunger: Oregon Food Prices by County

March 28, 2011

DAYVILLE, Ore. - Groceries in Oregon set the average person back about $2.54 per meal, but in some counties, you can add a dollar or more to that figure. A new survey by the anti-hunger group Feeding America shows food prices by county, and the highest in Oregon are in Crook and Wheeler counties.

The survey indicates part of the problem is the wholesale grocery system, which offers better prices and delivery services to larger stores that can order in bulk. Sharon Thornberry, community systems food manager with the Oregon Food Bank, says that's what their research also has found - in many parts of the state.

"It's true all over rural Oregon. They're locally-owned stores, and they have a very hard time getting what we would call 'competitively-priced' foods that the rest of us are used to shopping for. They can't get general groceries and what we consider 'healthier' food delivered."

In some towns, the emergency food pantry is the only food source, which was not meant to be its role in the community, says Thornberry. She hopes the survey, called "Map the Gap," will spark community discussions about how to keep rural grocers in business and get more nutritious foods onto their shelves. It is online at www.feedingamerica.org.

In Grant County, the Jones family owns the Dayville Merc, the only grocery store for at least 30 miles in any direction. Angie Jones says wholesalers lump small stores into the "convenience store" category. That affects what she can buy from them and how much she pays for it.

"Because you're limited on what you can buy, and what you can buy is at a higher price, then people aren't going to make it a regular stop, when they're going to go to town anyway. So, why would they come to your store, when it's more money? Will it save a little bit on gas? They're not gonna save that much if your prices are much higher than the big stores."

Owning the store for six years, Jones has watched customers' shopping habits change in ways that are making it difficult for small-town merchants.

"People do not have any kind of a sense of community or rural responsibility anymore, period - it is gone. And I believe that the 'big box' stores have done it. So, to save what's left? I'm not sure how to change it, even."

For now, Jones says they haul their own groceries in from Boise or Portland, which also adds to the cost. The survey found 59 percent of the counties where food insecurity is highest are rural.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR