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Photograph by Dan Pulcrano

Aiding But Abetting: Rob Wentzien says that in the long run, his food program and others like it allow hunger to continue.

A View From the North

When the hunger solution becomes the problem

By Dan Pulcrano

THE SMALL EMERGENCY food distribution center Rob Wentzien heads up in a neighborhood on Portland, Oregon's northeast side is a growing enterprise.

When he started there eight years ago, it fed 60 to 65 people a day. These days 120 to 150 people a day stop by for shopping bags stuffed with baked goods, frozen meats, cereal and berries. Out of a small house in a low-income neighborhood, the ecumenical-based Northeast Emergency Food Program distributes donated USDA food and groceries it purchases from the Oregon Food Bank at 10 cents a pound. A family running short on food and cash can receive a three-to-five-day supply of groceries three times in a six-month period.

The soft-spoken Wentzien, a Lutheran minister, says the emergency food programs have capably addressed the needs of hungry Oregonians—too well, in his opinion.

"The system is so good at it that we as a society aren't forced to ask the question 'Why is there hunger in the first place?' Wentzien says. "The cause of why people are hungry needs to be addressed."

In spite of their necessity, he's critical of food pantries like his. "Programs like [this] abet hunger," he says. "They allow people to make a donation. People tell themselves they're addressing the problem of hunger. But that allows hunger to continue. Our system is set up to overproduce and pay the agriculture business instead of setting up some just system."

He says there are many reasons why the working poor wind up in his food lines. The high cost of health care and changes to Oregon's medical insurance system mean families of limited means can pay for medical services or food, but not both. Between 2001 and 2004, 160,000 people lost access to health insurance, according to the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. After one particularly drastic series of cuts to the state's Medicaid program, impact on emergency food centers was swift.

"The Saturday immediately after the cutbacks went into effect, a couple whose medicine had been cut off came in," says Wentzien. "They suffered from depression and they had to make a decision whether to buy medicine or buy food. They chose the medicine."

Working with Portland's needy has raised many questions for Wentzien.

"Why do medicines cost so much in this country as opposed to Canada? Why are people forced to work in jobs that pay minimum wage that make them choose between food or medicine? Is that just? Does a just society create that kind of system? My answer would be 'no.' A just society would allow working people to live in comfort without those kinds of stresses. A just society wouldn't allow the top 5 percent to control most of the resources while the rest of us are so wrapped up in daily survival that we spend all of our time trying to support ourselves."

In spite of his criticism, Wentzien says food pantries are necessary.

"People need to be fed," he says.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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