CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by researchers at Oregon State University confirms that Oregon has experienced a significant drop in its hunger rate since the state's No. 1 national ranking earlier this decade – at the same time that national rates for hunger and food insecurity have risen.
Oregon is bucking that national trend, the researchers say, showing a major drop in hunger rates in non-metropolitan areas, as well as among employed and unemployed households, two-parent families, and both renters and homeowners.
The OSU report also points out a large disparity in hunger and food insecurity between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in Oregon.
The newly released analysis, led by Mark Edwards, an associate professor of sociology at OSU, found that Oregon's hunger rate dropped from 5.2 percent of the population during 1999-2001, to 3.7 percent during 2002-04, the most recent data available. Food insecurity also dropped, by a smaller margin, from 13.4 percent to 12.2 percent.
National rates for hunger increased from 3.1 to 3.6 percent during that same period, while food insecurity rates went from 10.3 to 11.4 percent.
"The decrease in the Oregon hunger rate may not seem like much, but when you consider that it means roughly 19,000 households in the state no longer report facing hunger, it's pretty significant," Edwards said. "Determining why Oregon's hunger rate decreased – at a time when the national rate was rising – is more difficult to nail down, but it appears to me that a doubling in the number of food stamps allocated is the most logical explanation."
According to Oregon Department of Human Services data, there were approximately 109,000 food stamp cases per month in Oregon in 1999. By the end of 2004, that number was nearly 218,000. During that period, DHS had strengthened its outreach efforts and simplified its application process for potential recipients, Edwards said.
"That trend may also explain why food insecurity hasn't dropped at the same rate," Edwards explained. "Receiving food stamps may hold off hunger, per se, but it doesn't erase all of your concerns about whether there will be enough for you and your family to eat next week or next month. So you can be 'food insecure' but not 'hungry.'"
This was the first year that the study compared overall rates of Hispanic residents to non-Hispanics and the findings were significant, Edwards pointed out. A total of 11.1 percent of Hispanics reported hunger, compared to 5.6 percent of non-Hispanics. The gap in food insecurity was even greater – 29.9 percent for Hispanics, 10.1 percent for non-Hispanics.
"We cannot compare these findings with the previous study, but these newest figures show some dramatic differences in both hunger and food insecurity between Hispanics and non-Hispanics," Edwards said. "The rates among Hispanics are two to three times higher than among non-Hispanics."
The OSU report is a follow-up to a 2003 report released by Edwards and Bruce Weber, an OSU Extension economist, which established baseline data on Oregon's hunger problem. Their data comes from the Current Population Survey, or CPS, which is conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in conjunction with the Census Bureau.
In their first report, the OSU researchers compared Oregon's data with national statistics. In their newly released study, the researchers looked at changes the state has made since the last analysis. Co-authoring this study with Edwards was Jay Grussing, a master's degree student in public policy at OSU.
"One of the most interesting findings," Edwards said, "is that the decline in hunger has come in almost all of the socio-economic categories. It isn't just one group that improved. It's almost all of them. Perhaps the most surprising change is the rate of decline in non-metro areas – which is different in Oregon than in the rest of the country."
Metro hunger rates in Oregon declined from 5.2 percent in 1999-2001 to 4.3 percent in 2002-04, yet plummeted in non-metro areas from 5.2 percent to 2.0 percent. Why?
"We're not really sure," Edwards said. "But it is certainly a question worth investigating."
OSU Extension economist Weber, who coordinates the Rural Studies Program at OSU, says Oregon bucks national trends with its lower rural hunger rates. He noted that the large hunger declines in non-metro Oregon occurred even as food insecurity there increased.
"One striking difference between Oregon and the rest of the U.S. is that nationally rural hunger rates are higher than urban rates, while in Oregon the reverse is true," Weber said. "We don't know if these rural and urban differences are the result of differences in policies, or merely that rural Oregonians are better at protecting people from hunger than their urban and national counterparts."
The only demographic group that increased in reported hunger, according to the OSU researchers, was single mothers – a slight rise from 9.4 to 9.6 percent. Food insecurity among single mothers is a major issue, rising from 25.0 percent to 34.3 percent.
Hunger rates are determined by respondents answering a long list of questions, in which they may report that they or their children had skipped meals or significantly reduced the size of their meals; have been hungry but had nothing to eat; or involuntarily lost weight because of a lack of food. Food insecurity is a broader category that includes being concerned about having enough food to avoid those situations.
Among the other results of the OSU study:
- Hunger rates among employed Oregonians dropped from 5.5 percent in 1999-2001 to 3.4 percent in 2002-04; food insecurity rates dropped from 14.0 to 11.2 percent;
- Among unemployed Oregonians, the hunger rate dropped from 11.1 to 6.2 percent; the food insecurity rate rose slightly from 24.7 to 25.3 percent;
- Among dual earner families, the hunger rate dropped from 2.5 to 1.6 percent; food insecurity rose from 7.2 to 7.7 percent;
- Two parent families with kids showed a decrease in hunger rates from 7.3 to 2.2 percent, and a decrease in food insecurity from 19.1 to 12.3 percent;
- Both male and female blue collar/service industry workers showed decreases in hunger rates (6.8 to 4.7 percent for males; 10.6 to 7.1 percent for females) and in food insecurity (20.0 to 17.0 percent for males; 24.9 to 18.9 percent for females).
A copy of the report, "Changes in Hunger and Food Insecurity in Oregon," can be found on the OSU Rural Studies Program website.