The face of poverty in the Gorge is changing due to Oregon's high unemployment rate and deep recession.
But the high demand for food and help paying energy bills has drained monetary reserves and emptied the shelves of many area food providers. The near-crisis situation has led the Mid-Columbia Community Action Council, Inc., to ask local residents for help.
"I don't look for this situation to get better anytime soon since our three main industries, agriculture, timber and aluminum, are all in trouble," said Jim Slusher, director of the action council that serves Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties.
He said this winter many area families were forced for the first time to seek out emergency food and help paying their utility bills.
"We are see many more brand new people who have never before asked for services and then, all of a sudden, they are out of work or their hours have been cut, said Miki Ingebo, the action council's intake specialist and food share coordinator.
Slusher said the agency needs about $95,000 in additional energy funding just to help the 700 households on their waiting list -- and more calls continue to come in every day.
Last year, Ingebo said the Oregon Food Bank Network collected 46 million pounds of food for distribution within the state and in neighboring Clark County, Wash. At least 652,000 people ate at least one meal prepared from one of the emergency food boxes and 41 percent of those individuals were children.
Slusher said his staffers are turning away four to five families per day who are asking for help to pay their rent. In addition, the agency is now unable to assist the growing number of people with disconnect notices from utility companies.
Ingebo said in Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties more than 914 emergency food boxes were handed out between July and December of 2001, serving 3,101 more individuals than during the same time the year before.
"With the recent economic slowdown, more and more people are turning to local hunger-relief agencies for assistance, said Ingebo.
"Some people who were just barely making ends meet now must contend with reduced hours or less pay. Seniors who had planned on more secure retirements now face plummeting investment income. And these are just a few examples of the new faces of hunger our network has seen in the past several months," she said. "No one should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from."
Slusher said because there are still some cold weather months ahead, the agency's top priority need is money to help low-income families pay high energy bills. He said contributions should specify this fund and can also include a particular geographical location where they should be applied. In addition to energy assistance, Ingebo said donations are needed for the Leo Moore Fund which allows payment of emergency needs, such as tire repairs, that otherwise fall through the gaps of allowable service agency allocations.
"We manage to do a lot for very little by working together but there are just those things we can't cover," said Ingebo.
She said every $1 donation to the agency will purchase about 100 pounds of food that will be distributed to 15 local agencies that cover the three counties. Monetary donations can be dropped off at the Hood River office, 205 Oak St., No. 4, or sent by check or money order to the agency's headquarters at PO Box 1969, The Dalles, OR 97058. For more information call Ingebo or Slusher at 541-298-5131.