An Out-of-Whack Food Chain

We always start out at the Zupan's pastry counter, where today free samples of cinnamon rolls and pound cake are on display. I give one of each to my 7-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter. Then we head to the produce section, where chunks of pineapple and orange beckon. While I bag lettuce and carrots, my children jostle over toothpicks and pieces of fruit, managing to gulp down two or three of each kind before we move on to the meat aisle. On top of the deli counter are plates of crackers and a bacon cheese dip. As it turns out, my kids love it. I dole out two slathered crackers each, while the woman behind the counter smiles indulgently.

For the past five years I've lived in inner city Portland, Oregon, a couple of blocks from both Zupan's, a gourmet grocery, and the Sunnyside Methodist Church soup kitchen. It was during one of our daily walks from home to school to grocery store that this revelation first came to me. My children are dumpster divers, albeit the type of dumpster divers who are sweet, adorable and irrefutably middle-class. In their lust for free samples (the calories consumed this way are not insignificant) my kids are the identical opposites of homeless people we see scrounging for discarded food in the garbage. Both reflect the twisted logic of a food supply that has less to do with scarcity than the twin specters of excess and waste.

For the past several years, Oregon has been the number one state in the country for hunger. According to a study released in 2002 by Brandeis University, 6 percent of Oregon households go hungry, compared with 3.3 percent nationwide. One in four children in Oregon lives in a household that is "food insecure," defined as having limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritionally adequate food. That translates into 193,000 kids in the state who are either skipping meals or fending off hunger by eating poor quality foods.

Theories about Oregon's high hunger ranking abound. Most revolve around the current economic downturn. The reason Oregon is suffering more than the rest of the country, says Nick McRee, a sociologist at the University of Portland, is because of problems associated with the unique transformation of the state's employment base.

"Many states experienced a high-tech boom in the 1990s," he says, "but Oregon experienced a decline in natural resource production at roughly the same time. "

The social costs linked to the economic dislocation of loggers, millworkers, fishermen, were masked by the growing affluence of high tech workers in the urbanized areas of the state, he says. "But this meant that Oregon was exceptionally vulnerable to any disruption in the high tech economy." When people are poor, adds McRee, they tend to cut back on food expenditures first, rather than reduce spending for inelastic measures such as housing.

Here's the syllogism. People who don't have money don't have enough to eat. People who have enough to eat are people with money. But make no mistake. In 21st century America, we're all catenating on an out-of-whack food chain.

Thus in my own household, the problem is that we waste enormous quantities of food and have unfettered access to more. On a recent Saturday morning I awoke to the sound of a crashing noise, squeals of laughter and one long "Mooommmy." I stumbled downstairs in my bathrobe, to find four children under 8 (two friends were spending the night) and a pool of Grapenuts and milk all over the dining room floor. It was a new box and a fresh carton. "All right," I sighed, "give me a minute and I'll run to the store."

Then there was the time my kids and I were at Whole Foods, arguably Portland's most expensive grocery store. We had come from Powell's Books across the street, and I wanted to pick up something for dinner. "Can I have a sample, mama?" the children ask. Fifteen minutes later, I take inventory of the free food each child consumed:

-three pieces of chicken jalapeno sausage
-two rice crackers and hummus
-two slices of grapefruit
-three slices of orange
-a cup of Martinelli's apple cider
-half each of a chocolate and apple soy protein bar four sweet potato fries.

It doesn't take a licensed nutritionist to verify this constitutes a full meal for a 5-year-old -- and a reasonably balanced and healthy one at that. Here's the catch. My kids had just eaten lunch and weren't at all hungry. There is more than one way to disrupt the natural relationship between hunger and eating. One is to starve; the other is to stuff. In the United States, these are two sides of the same coin.

As we exit Whole Foods, a man stands outside the door selling Street Roots, the homeless newspaper. I fumble in my purse, but have to decline. All I have is my debit card, no cash. I ask him if he ever shops at Whole Foods or has come in to eat the free samples. No, he says, when he buys food, he goes to Fred Meyer. (As my kids will tell you, Fred Meyer rarely has free samples; nor do Albertsons and other stores who cater to a less affluent, albeit hungrier, clientele.)

Ron Hill, a business professor at the University of Portland, is the author of "Surviving in a Material World: The Lived Experience of People in Poverty." "There are lots of ways in which people in poverty are ostracized from mainstream consumer establishments...and their benefits," he says. He gives me a shortlist: cafes that welcome well dressed loiterers but prevent homeless people from waiting out a temporary downpour, grocery stores that destroy foods to avoid (human) scavengers.

As Hill points out, hunger in the 21st century is rife with paradox. The growing number of "food insecure" households, for example, coincides with a skyrocketing increase in obesity and diabetes rates, as well as the supersizing of the American meal. "It's an oxymoron, that someone could be obese and not have money," he says. But two decades ago, observes Hill, the McDonalds Happy Meal weighed in at approximately 500 calories; today, its supersize analog is 1,500 calories. Although it's relatively cheap to buy these calories, he says, they are high in fat and of little nutritional value.

University of Portland Education professor Ellyn Harwood elaborates. Harwood, who has conducted research on students who try to learn while hungry, says that many kids in poverty get their only sustenance from fast food. "That's too much caffeine, preservatives, dyes, in an already fragile learning system," she says. She cites studies showing the brains of malnourished children to be two-third the size of a normal child the same age. "We also know that problems with a lack of iron can cause motor coordination, attention, and lack of intellectual development," she says.

The kids get hungrier, yet the demands for school accountability grow louder. Scarcity in a time/place of abundance is always about contradiction. According to Metro, the Tri-county region threw away an estimated $327 million in edible food in 2001, and spent over $12 million to truck it to the landfill. The majority of the food came from restaurants and grocery stores. That same year, over 500,000 people in Oregon received emergency food assistance from the Oregon Food Bank . Nearly half that went to children under 17 years of age.

"When people think of a stereotypical hungry person they think of a homeless wino Vietnam vet," says UP senior Katie King, who twice a week brings food from the UP commons to clients of transitional housing projects downtown. "Now, because of the lack of a living wage, we're seeing more and more families."

To keep food out of the garbage and back in the mouths of the hungry, several food service businesses have begun to participate in food donation programs. Between March 2002 and September 2002, for example, Whole Foods donated more than 60,000 pounds of leftover food to the Oregon Food Bank. In a model program now being replicated around the country, Mentor Graphics and Bon Appetit cafeterias make weekly donations of approximately 140 leftover meals to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

That's what happens to food after it has lost value as a commodity. As for free food that's consumed before it becomes a commodity, well, Genevieve Lynch, Whole Foods marketing and communications director puts it this way: "We have ample amount of money for free samples," she says. "It's a compliment to the products if they get eaten quickly." Brian Rohter, CEO of New Seasons Markets, concurs. "We have as comprehensive sampling program as any store in the city," says He doesn't reveal the dollar amount. "It's not material relative to the benefits we realize," he says.

Last month, I made my second visit to New Seasons in as many years. The samples were top notch. The kids ate free crepes with Nutella, tombo tuna with fresh pineapple salsa, and chunks of fresh fruit. It was getting late in the afternoon, and l wondered which of the store's perishable items would end up being trucked to the food bank, and which ones would end up in landfill and/or the dumpster.

Something is out of sync in Oregon, just like the increasing number of malformed fish and amphibians cropping up in our polluted waterways. Poverty-stricken children are both obese and malnourished. Rich kids feast on free samples of pork tenderloin and seared clams. Children of laid off high-tech workers wait in line at the food bank. We pay money to bury nutritious food in landfills.

As for me, I hardly ever eat the free samples, myself. Like most well-fed women in this country, I'm on a diet.

Linda Baker is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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