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May 7th, 2003 Lauren Dake | News Stories
 

Starved for Attention

Oregon's hungry teenagers lurk under the media radar.

     
Tags:
Oregon Food Bank: (503) 282-0555, www.oregonfoodbank.org .


Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force: (503) 963-2291, www.oregonhunger.org .


Oregon Center for Public Policy: www.ocpp.org .

IMAGE: lauren dake
Keipher is hungry.

Draped in a baggy denim coat and jeans, which make him look bigger than he really is, the 16-year-old stands in the cold, waiting for the No. 20 bus. His rap band, Fuked Up Kidz, has a photo shoot today, and Keipher's dressed accordingly. His head is shaved, except for a light-brown ponytail, and he sports a white bandanna that reads, "Tragic for Life." His moss-green eyes and long black lashes are still slightly glued together from heavy partying and little sleep.

Standing next to him is his mother, Marilyn. She's waiting for the bus that will take her down to the Union Gospel Mission so she can pick up an emergency food box.

Urban teenagers have long confronted an ugly set of problems: drugs, hormones, acne, gangs. For Keipher and his older brother, Kris, 17, add another item to the list: growling stomachs.

Oregon's hunger rate is nearly double the national average. In a typical month, 60,000 children in Oregon rely on food boxes, according to Oregon Food Bank statistics. Nearly one child in five is hungry.

Last week was Hunger Week in Oregon. While adorable tots tug at the heartstrings and grab the attention, it's often the teens who struggle not only with hunger's ache but with its stigma as well.

Keipher says he doesn't care. He often accompanies his mom to food banks, and he claims he would live this way even if he were rich. He doesn't want to be a "high-class motherfucker, up in the hills, not giving a damn about anybody else."

But his brother, Kris, is a different story.

Although Kris qualifies for a free lunch at school, he often skips it, preferring hunger to the humiliation of having his friends know he's poor. He's passed out twice during his high-school dance class from a lack of food. He recently transferred to a new school, due to behavioral problems, and asked WW to withhold details about his life (including his surname), lest his social circle spurn him. He seldom invites friends over. When he visits their houses, he often shows up around dinnertime.

The consequences of hunger reach far beyond the dinner table. Food insecurity is directly linked to health and academic problems in children, according to a study done by Brandeis University. Researchers have also reported that hunger leads to higher levels of aggression, anxiety, passivity and illness.

Although Kris is hesitant to talk about hunger, it clearly affects his life. Laid-back on the surface, he is angry inside. "He used to go to school with a lot of rich kids whose parents would just hand them a $20 bill a day," says Marilyn. In 1999, he was arrested for throwing his mother against a wall.

Keipher and Kris may have to endure their hunger for a while yet. In March, Marilyn lost her job managing a Korean laundromat. Until she can find another one, they must depend on her fiancé, a janitor in the Rose Quarter, to pay the rent.

Marilyn gets $262 worth of food stamps a month--hardly enough to feed herself and two teenage boys. To stretch their resources, she skips meals throughout the day and eats only a small snack for dinner, so her sons will have more.

When the food stamps run out, Marilyn turns to charities like the Union Gospel Mission or St. Vincent de Paul, which offer emergency food boxes. These charities get their supplies from the Oregon Food Bank, which distributed 56 million pounds of food last year from its huge, immaculate warehouse in Northeast Portland. The bank in turn relies on public donations and contributions from farmers and grocery stores.

Oregon's hunger rate is continuing to swell. Housing costs are getting higher, and wages aren't keeping up. Family income for the richest Oregonians grew by 34 percent from the late '80s to the '90s, while the poorest saw their incomes slide 6 percent. The gap between rich and poor increased four times as fast in Oregon as in any other state, and there are now fewer industrial and more low-wage jobs in Oregon than ever before, according to the Oregon Food Bank.

"It's a constant struggle to survive," Marilyn says. "Am I going to pay rent or the electricity, so the food we do have in the refrigerator stays good? I have to make sure the boys have enough bus money to get to school.... It's stressful, and I just want to give up sometimes. People have this image that we are lazy, but it's hard to try and survive, and I want a job so bad."


Sixteen- year- old Keipher (left) sometimes accompanies his mom to local food pantries. His older brother, however, doesn't tell his friends about the family's sources of groceries.
 
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