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New year: Time to 'solve hunger'

Patti Whitney-Wise has been working her entire life to eradicate hunger. As 2014 dawns, she said it is time for all of us to knuckle down and do something about poverty and hunger in Oregon.

“As we enter the new year, it is a good time to have a public conversation. There really is a role for every person to help end hunger,” she said.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A boy snacks on a sandwich and fruit at a summer food program, made available by Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.Whitney-Wise, a resident of Milwaukie since 1996, is executive director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, a nonprofit that raises awareness about hunger, connects people to nutrition programs and advocates for changes to end hunger before it begins.

The organization was founded in 2006, specifically to support and complement the Oregon Hunger Task Force, which was created by the Legislature in 1989 to collaborate with state agencies, businesses, nonprofits, public officials and local communities to end hunger statewide.

When Whitney-Wise was on the task force board, she and other members “knew we needed to have a nonprofit in place to support the work of the task force, and to support the staff with jobs and benefits. We also wanted to continue state support and fund raise on our own.”

As the name implies, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, with a staff of 12, partners with the Oregon Food Bank, the Ecumenical Ministries of Portland and community, legislative and state agencies to educate people about hunger and poverty in the state.

Although Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon is based in Southeast Portland, Whitney-Wise said the organization has worked extensively in Clackamas County, specifically with the North Clackamas School District’s summer food program.

“I’m a resident, and it bothered me that there was no summer food program, so we instigated the summer food and after-school snack programs throughout the county,” she said.

In addition, the nonprofit has developed a model summer outreach program that offers to help start after-school programs. Once these are up and running, organizations can then apply for federal funds, to keep the programs going, Whitney-Wise said.

Root causes

Although the Oregon Food Bank and other organizations do a good job addressing the need for food, “we are looking at the bigger picture. How can we provide a safety net for families when adults lose their jobs? How can we provide child care, affordable housing, health care and utility assistance? We need to move beyond the emergency food box,” Whitney-Wise said.

“To solve hunger, we have to go upstream to the root causes, and family economic stability is at the top,” she said.

Luckily, this issue has caught the eye of Cylvia Hayes, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s partner, sometimes referred to as the First Lady of Oregon.

Hayes is deeply involved with the Oregon Prosperity Initiative, Whitney-Wise said, which is committed to increasing the prosperity of all Oregonians, by ensuring that people who are currently struggling to feed and shelter themselves and their families have access to critical resources, while at the same time addressing the long-standing, systemic causes of poverty.  

“She is a wonderful spokesperson who wants to encourage involvement by communities in the big picture to make for a healthier state. Hunger is an income issue, and we need people to realize there is a cost to not addressing this,” Whitney-Wise said.

A national study has shown that by not dealing with hunger, “we lose out on over $2 billion in the cost of kids not learning at school and by the cost of emergency room visits,” she added.

Looking ahead to February, Whitney-Wise said that during the coming legislative session, lawmakers need to come up with public policy to help people earn a better living wage.

“How do we help people move forward? People are sensitive to hunger issues during the holiday season, but for us it is a time of reflecting and making plans so families don’t face this in the future,” she said.

Understanding hunger issues

This issue is something Whitney-Wise has focused on for a long time. In high school she did service projects. She has had personal experience with struggles getting by, saying her father died when she was 15, and her mother raised four children.

Whitney-Wise earned a degree in sociology at the University of San Francisco and then went on to do a national service project for Volunteers in Service to America, working with children’s nutrition programs.

“When you are in VISTA, for that year you are on food stamps, and I was on food stamps in college, as well,” she said.

Whitney-Wise is recognized as a leader in Oregon on anti-hunger legislative advocacy, as well as a national leader. She has advised advocacy groups in several states around the country and has been a keynote speaker at hunger summits and events in numerous states.

Over the past 30 years, her public service includes outreach on federal food programs for children’s rights groups and addressing poverty issues as executive director of the California Council of Churches. She also has received several prestigious awards, including the national Wellstone-Wheeler Anti-Hunger Advocacy Leadership Award.

“What is amazing about Patti is she has a deep understanding of the history of hunger and poverty issues. She understands how the policy piece works and is able to translate that to people on the ground. She has the ability to understand what we need to know to do the best work for people in Oregon,” said Sharon Thornberry, the community foods system manager at the Oregon Food Bank.

Thornberry was a member of the Oregon Hunger Task Force for 16 years, and she and Whitney-Wise touch base frequently to discuss hunger and poverty issues.

Thornberry added, “Patti is also extraordinarily good at building relationships with state agencies so we can all work together. She has been instrumental in developing relationships not only with state workers and administrators, but with the governor’s office, and that has really made a difference.”

But you don’t have to be a mover or shaker to make a difference in the fight on poverty and hunger, Whitney-Wise said.

“Anyone can become a partner. Go to our website and sign up for a variety of things. These are issues we can all work on.”

To find out more about Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, visit oregonhunger.org. To learn more about the goals of the Oregon Prosperity Initiative, visit firstlady.oregon.gov.