Hunger Still High in Oregon

by Matt Newell-Ching

We got some bad news this week, and there isn’t really any way to sugarcoat it.

While hunger has been steadily decreasing in the U.S., it remains persistently high in Oregon. That’s according to a new USDA report on Food Insecurity in the U.S.

How widespread is hunger in Oregon?

The facts:

  • Nearly one in six households (16.1 percent) in Oregon were “food insecure” between 2013-15. Compare that to three years prior (2010-2012), when food insecurity was at 13.6 percent. “Food Insecurity” essentially means that families can’t afford all the food they need and don’t always know where their next meal will come from. About three in five families who experience food insecurity aren’t regularly skipping meals, but may use strategies like purchasing cheaper but less nutritious food to stretch the food budget or relying on food assistance at the end of the month.
  • For an estimated 103,000 households in Oregon, these coping strategies aren’t enough; they are forced to skip meals. This represents 6.6 percent of households in Oregon, experiencing what USDA calls “Very Low Food Security” (2013-2015). It used to officially be called “hunger,” and we still call it that, because, well, that’s what it is. That’s up from 5.8 percent from 2010-12.
  • To put that into perspective, if all 103,000 households experiencing hunger comprised a city, it would be the second-largest city in Oregon.
  • Oregon’s hunger rate is not the highest in the country. That dubious distinction belongs to Mississippi at 7.9 percent. Oregon now has the eighth highest rate of hunger in the nation.
  • Oregon was the only state in the United States to see a statistically significant increase in food insecurity from 2010-12 to 2013-15. Here’s a simple chart showing the percentage of hunger and food insecurity Oregon and the U.S. over the past six years:
Percent Food Insecure Percent Hungry (Very Low Food Insecure)
2013-15 2010-12 2013-15 2010-12
Oregon 16.1 13.6 6.6 5.8
U.S. 13.7 14.7 5.4 5.6

What’s happening in Oregon that isn’t happening in the rest of the country?

Hunger in this country isn’t caused by a food shortage. It happens when people don’t have enough income to cover all their living costs.

Research suggests that variations in hunger by state are primarily driven by factors such as the share of income spent on rent, high mobility and high unemployment. Let’s look at those one by one.


As everyone who has read the news lately knows, low-wage workers in Oregon struggle to afford rent. For every 100 Oregon households at or below 50 percent of the median income, there are only 37 affordable and available housing units. This is the third-worst rate in the nation. The Portland metro area has the ninth-worst rate of available housing of any metro area in the nation. According to the National Association of Realtors, rent went up in the Portland metro area by 20 percent from 2009-14—the sixth fastest rate in the nation.

Oregonians who rent are six times more likely to be hungry than those who own a home. This has broad implications, but no greater implication than for African-Americans in Oregon. For over a century, exclusion laws and redlining systematically denied home-ownership opportunities to African Americans in Oregon. There is a direct line of causation between these racist policies and the fact that 44 percent of African Americans households in Oregon face food insecurity today.


Oregon has earned a national reputation as a great place to live—we’re popular and more people are moving here than any other state. In the long run, that could be a good thing for Oregon’s economy. In the short run, it means that an already-tight housing market is getting tighter faster than other states.  Newer Oregonians may also experience financial instability; moving is expensive, they may be on the hunt for employment while incurring high housing costs and they may not have a support system in place to lean on.


It should also be noted that Oregon’s unemployment rate was higher than the national average during the majority of the time when data was collected (2013-15). Analysis by the Oregon Center for Public Policy shows about half of Oregon counties have yet to recover the jobs lost during the great recession, with 17 primarily rural counties continuing to show negative job growth since 2007. And many of the jobs that have returned tend to be low-paying and part-time.

We’re hopeful that as the job market and unemployment improve and Oregon’s recently increased minimum wage goes into effect, future measures of hunger and food insecurity will decrease.

Americans experience hunger inequitably. Research by OSU shows us that half of households led by single mothers in Oregon are food insecure, a rate three times the state average and 13 percentage points higher than single mothers nationwide. One driver of this is Oregon’s high cost of childcare. When you imagine a hungry person in Oregon you may picture a child. A more accurate image is of a mom who has finished her shift for the day, scraped together dinner for the kids and gone to bed hungry herself—because her paycheck barely covered rent, daycare and a tank of gas.