By RACHEL CAVANAUGH and JESSE BURKHARDT
Hunger and food insecurity rates in Klickitat County are nearly double the state average, Washington researchers have revealed.
In the state's first ever study to analyze hunger rates by county, authorities determined Klickitat County to be at 17 percent, according to findings published last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The statewide average is 10 percent.
In the study released last month, the USDA determined "food insecurity" by asking six questions in a phone survey. Klickitat was one of eight counties to rank below the state average, along with Adams, Asotin, Chelan, Franklin, Okanogan, Pacific, and Yakima.
Linda Stone, food policy expert for the Children's Alliance, an advocacy organization, said it is common for rural communities to be more susceptible to hunger, calling the Klickitat County numbers "significant."
"You guys are almost double," said Stone. "A lot of the higher rates are in rural communities. Often, that means that the job rates are lower. In a lot [of rural counties], the major industries are what I call resource-based -- fishing, timber, agriculture. The fishing and timber industries have faced pretty major declines."
The recent economic crisis has only compounded the situation.
At the Goldendale Community Food Bank, for example, organizers said they saw a 25 percent increase between October and November, just in regular food boxes. With holiday boxes factored in, the number jumps to 54 percent.
Manager Alecia Atwood said she has never seen anything like it.
"This is the highest that we have in recorded history for the food bank," said Atwood. "I would guess it has to do with many people coming into the area when there are no jobs available, layoffs, and then more people are learning about the food bank."
The story is similar at the Washington Gorge Action Program (WGAP) Food Bank in Bingen.
Pat Sajdak, department director for the WGAP food program, said on Friday that the Food Bank distributed 770 food boxes in November. Sajdak added that the Food Bank had 237 more requests for food boxes this November than it did in November 2007.
"It's the most need we've seen in 20 years," Sajdak said. "And we're seeing people we've never seen before."
The food boxes contain approximately 60 pounds worth of food.
Sajdak said the Food Bank has enough food to meet the demands -- for now.
"The requests grow every day," she explained. "Right now we have enough with the help that just came in, but I don't know how long it will last."
According to WGAP Executive Director Linda Schneider, the Food Bank is getting more donations of food this year, but Schneider said demand is likely to increase as the overall economy continues its decline.
A number of charities, government agencies, and community service organizations are working to alleviate the situation.
Schools, fire departments, Scout troops, grocery stores, banks, and businesses around the county also are offering various food drives for the holidays, and the "Fill-A-Bag, Help Stop Hunger" program is in full swing.
Last week, the local Food Bank received a major donation from the White Salmon Thriftway/Harvest Market. Several pallets worth of foodstuffs were provided to the local Food Bank as a gift from the store and its owner, Pete O'Neal.
Schneider praised the donation -- which totaled 4,020 pounds -- and said all the food would be distributed within the Bingen-White Salmon area.
"All of this food will stay in the local community," Schneider said.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," added Sajdak.
O'Neal said he was glad to be able to help provide support for those who need it, and called for others to lend a hand as well.
"We at Harvest Market are proud to support those in need in our local community," explained O'Neal. "Harvest Market thanks all of its suppliers and the local volunteers for their support in making this food donation possible. Please join us in helping our neighbors."
Last year, 6,688 pounds of food donations and $7,418 in monetary contributions came in to the local Harvest Market/Thriftway store and Riverview Bank as part of the Fill-A-Bag campaign.
As of Dec. 12, the Fill-A-Bag food drive -- which runs through the end of January -- had collected 5,087 pounds of food.
"It comes from all over," said Dale Connell, branch manager and vice president of Riverview Community Bank in White Salmon. "People are really being generous."
White Salmon's Community Benefit Committee also takes a major role in helping alleviate hunger in the area. For at least the past 45 years, the committee of volunteers -- in recent years under the direction of Community Benefit Committee President Wayne Carlock -- has organized a drive to provide food for dozens of local families.
This year, the committee will provide food boxes to nearly 110 families. The Community Benefit Committee assists families in the Bingen-White Salmon area as well as extending to communities such as Lyle, Klickitat, and Underwood.
Stone said it is likely that social issues played a role in the recent food insecurity reports from the USDA. Many people who are eligible for food assistance, she said, do not ask for it, often because they feel embarrassed.
"There's still sort of a stigma related to using food stamps," said Stone. "If you live in a small town and you know everybody who works at the grocery store, that's a disincentive."
Stone said she has heard of people driving 50 miles or more to supermarkets in different towns to avoid being seen using food stamps. Beyond that, she added, some people simply don't know about what programs are available.
In Klickitat County, about 59 percent of those eligible for food assistance used the programs in October, Stone said, based on an unofficial participation access index. That is compared to an official statewide participation rate of 64 percent.
Moreover, agencies like the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) and Head Start, an early-learning program, offer assistance to low-income families.
Kayla Schilling, a 21-year-old single mom, gets help with groceries and her children eat at Head Start.
"It's really tough around the holidays, raising three kids on my own," said Schilling. "I can't imagine if I didn't have food stamps how I would make it. It's hard enough to make it even with them."
Stone said what many people don't understand is that food is often an expendable item in a family budget, compared to fixed costs like heating, gas, and medical bills.
Deborah Heart, who helps with the meal program out of the Lutheran Church in Goldendale, said she has seen evidence of that too.
"People have to make a choice -- do I eat, or do I buy fuel to get to my job?" said Heart.
"Food often ends up being the thing you don't get to," added Stone.