CORVALLIS - A new study on food prices and access in Lane County indicates that grocery prices are highest in some rural, lower-income areas of the state where people are least able to afford them and routinely have to spend a far higher portion of their income on food.
The research may help explain, at least in part, why 5.8 percent of the population of Oregon is hungry - a rate that is the highest in the United States and nearly twice the national average of 3 percent.
But the study, which was done by geographers at Oregon State University, found a complex relationship between food prices, transportation constraints and other issues, and identified no simple solutions that could address the unusually high level of hunger in the state.
"There is plenty of food in Oregon, but the most healthy, fresh foods at the lowest prices are not always available to people in rural or low-income areas," said Dianna Smith, who conducted this research as part of her graduate thesis at OSU. "We still have a lot to learn before we can reduce the level of hunger in this state, which actually has only a moderate level of poverty."
The research looked at food availability, prices, transportation and other factors in two large urban areas and two smaller towns in Lane County - Eugene and Springfield in the Willamette Valley, Oakridge in the Oregon Cascade Range, and Florence on the Oregon coast.
Among the observations of the report, some of which were findings compiled from other studies:
- Unless Oakridge residents are willing to drive 30 miles to a larger city, they will spend more than $30 a week more on food than some urban residents.
- From 1997 to 2002, the demand for emergency food in Oregon increased by 42 percent, and almost half the clients in one regional food bank come from a household where at least one person has a job.
- Income disparities are growing - from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the income of the highest-earning 20 percent of Oregonians went up 34 percent while the income of the lowest 20 percent declined 6.5 percent.
- In 2000, many of Oregon's rural counties had unemployment rates more than 20 percent above the national average, forming a low-income rural group that often has food access and cost problems much greater than their low-income urban counterparts.
- Many small towns in rural Oregon have a single grocery story, or none, providing residents little choice of price or food products.
- Transportation can be a key issue in some rural areas and a daunting task for people without a car - in one entire county of Eastern Oregon there is only one grocery story.
- The availability of public transportation in urban areas significantly improves the public access to low-priced food, although even some areas of Eugene could be defined as "food deserts" in which low-income people might not have sufficient access or mobility to obtain healthy, fresh food.