The Oregon Legislature will soon send $7.5 million to the Oregon Food Bank. This is because food benefits from the federal government are decreasing for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians.
The state Senate voted 22-7 on Thursday, March 30, 2023, to approve House Bill 5045, which rebalanced the state’s budget and gave $7.5 million to the Oregon Food Bank.
It also gave more money for public defense, hospital staffing, and fixing roads damaged by bad weather. Gov. Tina Kotek pushed for the food bank to get more money and is expected to sign the bill.
At the same time, a lot is cutting federal food aid. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is available to about 720,000 people in Oregon. The federal government raised monthly SNAP benefits when the COVID pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. This temporary increase ended last month.
Food prices have gone up a lot since the pandemic, so the average amount of food benefits each household in Oregon gets each month has dropped from $450 to $270.
Jason Stephany, a spokesman for the Oregon Food Bank, said in an email that the number of people asking for food at the free food markets, pantries, meal sites, and delivery programs that the Oregon Food Bank works with has gone up sharply in the last few weeks.
“We’re only a few weeks into this federal cut to families’ grocery budgets, yet we’re already seeing new records set for Oregonians served in a single day at area food assistance sites,” he said.
Susannah Morgan, the group’s CEO, told the Capital Chronicle before that the extra money would be enough to buy food until the end of June. The food bank thinks the U.S. government will have given more money by then. Last fall, the Department of Agriculture got permission to buy $2 billion worth of food made in the United States for food banks and school meal programs.
Separately, the state Department of Human Services said this week that low-income families with young children would get an extra $170 million in food aid.
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Many Republicans in the Senate and the House were skeptical about giving money to the food bank. However, on March 20, only Republicans in the HMarch 20ed against the bill.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, said during a House debate that the Oregon Food Bank should not have publicly opposed the 2020 Republican walkout over climate change legislation, or supported a 2022 law requiring overtime pay for agricultural workers, or a pending measure to guarantee access to abortions and other reproductive care.
“If their focus was simply feeding Oregonians, I would not have a problem with the $7.5 million allocation to this organization,” Boshart Davis said. “But after years of watching this organization engage in very partisan activities, I do not have faith in providing millions of state dollars to a politically active organization.”
Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, gave a speech on Thursday, March 30, 2023, which was almost theMarch 30e also said he would write a bill calling for an audit of the Oregon Food Bank to ensure that no state money it has received will be used for political activities.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a Democrat from Portland who is co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee that writes the budget said that the budget measure makes it clear that the Oregon Food Bank can only use the money to buy food.
“The money for the food bank is statutorily dedicated for food,” she said. “It cannot be used for anything else. The bill says explicitly it is for food purchases only.”
Stephany said that the food bank keeps track of every dollar it spends and that giving out food isn’t enough to solve hunger and poverty’s real problems.
“We need policies and investments that improve access to health care and housing statewide, especially in under-resourced small towns and rural and remote areas,” he said.
“Since our founding, Oregon Food Bank has supported important legislation to ensure everyone in Oregon has access to the resources we need to thrive — regardless of race, gender, religion or immigration status.”
The bill includes $70 million for the Department of Transportation’s maintenance budget for higher-than-expected repairs to weather-damaged state highways. The department estimates that most or all of this money will be paid back by the Federal Highway Administration.
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It also gives the Oregon Health Authority $25 million to help fill staffing gaps in hospitals across the state. The health authority paid nurses and other medical staff temporary contracts during the pandemic.
The bill also included $1.1 million for public defenders to help people who were convicted by juries that didn’t all agree. A decision by the Oregon Supreme Court in December made the U.S.
When the Supreme Court said that juries in serious criminal cases must agree unanimously, at least 225 people challenged their convictions. Legislative researchers say that there could be up to 2,000 possible cases.
In the next two-year budget, lawmakers will likely spend millions more on public defense. This is because a lack of public defenders has meant that hundreds of people have been denied their constitutional right to an attorney.