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Congressman warns of battle over food funding

Congressman Rick Larsen toured Good Cheer in Langley Thursday and warned volunteers and the board of directors about a “food fight” coming soon at the federal level.

As Congress begins reworking the farm bill next year — and attention turns to budget cuts — bargaining about how funds will be allocated will be unavoidable. Larsen, a 2nd District Democrat, is serving his third term and sits on the House of Representative’s Agriculture Committee.

“It’s literally a food fight,” Larsen said.

Different groups will lobby for funds for agricultural projects and for subsidies for all kinds of agricultural commodities ranging from berries to cotton.

However, less than half of the money in the farm bill goes to subsidizing agricultural projects, Larsen told the food bank audience.

More than half of the funds are currently bookmarked for food and nutrition projects, Larsen said.

“My big concern is that we don’t neglect the hunger and nutrition programs as we fight about funds,” he said.

Larsen is currently visiting his constituents and hosting a number of round table discussions concerning hunger in Western Washington in the lead-up to National Hunger Awareness Day this Tuesday.

He is also asking for assistance from the “anti-hunger network” in compiling data and information that may help shape a white paper to highlight hunger in Washington’s 2nd District.

Good Cheer has plenty of information to share.

The food bank is giving out 19,000 to 25,000 pounds of food a month, and is currently serving nearly 2,000 individuals on South Whidbey.

Over the past years, the need for food assistance through Good Cheer rose 20 percent. Low income levels may be to blame.

“Surviving on an income of $24,000 for a family of four, that’s impossible on this island,” said Maury Hood, A Good Cheer board member.

Kathy McLaughlin, executive director for Good Cheer Food Bank and Thrift Stores, said the gap between rich and poor is large on South Whidbey.

“We have a lot of haves and have-nots in our community,” she said.

Generational poverty, but also seasonal agricultural lay-offs, as well as the recent Boeing layoffs or temporary lay-offs at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, hurt South End families, she explained.

The rising cost of living and health care that’s unaffordable add to the problem.

“But we encourage our clients to pay the bills first and let us help them with their food needs,” she said.

With the construction of new food bank facilities on Bayview Road on the horizon, Larsen offered to help look for available funding.

The Good Cheer board hopes to move into a new building within the next two years, but funding has not been secured.

Good Cheer officials assured the congressman that any money invested in Good Cheer would be a good investment.

“We have been here for 43 years. We’re not going anywhere,” said Laura Price, board president.

Good Cheer is inviting the community to an open house on Tuesday, National Hunger Awareness Day.

People can support the cause by wearing orange, because orange is the hue for hunger relief.

“We will be passing out orange ribbons that have Hunger Awareness written on them through out South Whidbey,” McLaughlin said.

Board members, volunteers, and staff will be visiting Clinton, Greenbank and Langley handing out orange ribbons – spreading the word about hunger and the role of Good Cheer, she said.

Good Cheer is having a special ceremony from noon to 1 p.m. in Langley Park.

The public is encouraged to bring a sack lunch to hear international food program consultant Gene White, Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, and Price speak about hunger on global, national and local levels, McLaughlin said.

CMA Church’s “Soup’s On” volunteers will hand out cups of soup, and Good Cheer will supply drinks and dessert. In case of rain, the event will be held in the Fellowship Hall at Langley United Methodist Church.

People can also tour the food bank all day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We want people to be informed and familiar with the working of their local food bank,” McLaughlin said.

Hunger is a reality here on South Whidbey and elsewhere in the country. More than 1,973 South Whidbey residents face hunger every day, McLaughlin said.

And with more than 38 million Americans going hungry - 550,000 in Western Washington - increasing hunger awareness within local communities is a vital part of ending hunger, not only in Washington, but across nation.

The face of hunger in Western Washington continues to defy society’s expectations.

McLaughlin said hunger hits adults who are caring for a family member, hard-working families with children who have experienced a sudden job loss, and seniors who are living on a fixed income and forced to make choices between medicine and food.

According to Food Lifeline’s “Hunger in America 2006” study, 62 percent of the hungry people who use food banks in Western Washington count a job, Social Security, unemployment or disability as their main source of income, and nearly 45 percent have some form of post-secondary education.

“This information just confirms what many folks who live in the Pacific Northwest already know - that the cost of living is very high, good, high-paying jobs are not easy to find, and that having a college education doesn’t ensure the ability to put food on the table,” said Linda Nageotte, executive director of Food Lifeline.

Good Cheer is a member of Food Lifeline, which is the largest non-profit food bank distribution agency in Washington.

“We have the resources in this country to ensure that every one of our neighbors has access to adequate food,” Nageotte said. “But there are road blocks and obstacles for many trying to access this food. We must continue to work to increase the amount of food we are directing into local channels to feed the hungry.”

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