Mariann Duffy stands at her kitchen stove with an apron on, sautéing ground beef: “Everything I’m using today, I got from the food pantry.”
Duffy’s family of three lives in a trailer in Jordan Valley, a remote, high desert community in Eastern Oregon. Her husband is disabled, so the family gets by on disability assistance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP.
Tonight, Duffy is cooking stroganoff: “Usually they have sour cream in it, but I’m just putting cream of mushroom soup in it with the hamburger and a little seasoning over macaroni noodles.”
Sour cream is expensive, and Duffy has to be careful how she spends her $270 monthly SNAP benefits. It’s the middle of the month when food starts to run low.
Where can Oregonians use SNAP benefits and access food pantries?
In 2000, Oregon had the highest rate of hunger in the nation. People who live in cities usually have a grocery store or a food pantry option within a few miles. But in rural communities, access to groceries with affordable, fresh food is harder to come by.
Getting groceries is a day-long event for Duffy, like many rural residents on SNAP. She drives more than an hour to the Wal-Mart in Nampa, Idaho.
“You only can go shopping once a month,” Duffy says. “You have to do with what you got.”
Duffy technically could use her SNAP benefits at Mrs. Z’s, the one convenience store in town.
LeeAnn Conro’s family owns Mrs. Z’s. She says the costs of operating a rural business are reflected in her store’s food prices. A gallon of whole milk rings up at $5.50. “It’s expensive. It’s C-store expensive,” says Conro. And the stock is limited. “It’s basic C-store stuff. You know you can get a head of lettuce, but you’re not going to get a red pepper or a green pepper.”
The Oregon Food Bank runs a mobile pantry that visits Jordan Valley once a month. Without her food box, Duffy says her family would run out. “I always want more, but I make it work. And I think living here has taught me that.”
Thirty percent of people on SNAP are employed at least part-time. But in rural Oregon, wages tend to be low.
Deb Goosev lives alone in Gilchrist, Central Oregon and works at an electronics shop. “I live in rural Oregon and I love it,” she says. She gets about $50 a month in SNAP benefits.
She says relatives who live in cities tell her she should just grow her own food. But even growing potatoes in high elevation, in the desert, is hard.
“If you work then when you get home you’re going to be out there in the dark with a flashlight between your teeth trying to find that stuff before it rots or something eats it,” Goosev says. “You just have to get out there and do it. It makes you feel like some homesteader story: People out there with frozen hands picking frozen potatoes.”
Those potatoes might be a staple all winter. At the end of the month, right before her SNAP is recharged, Goosev says she’s often hungry. Her dinners become simple: “Butter and salt and spaghetti noodles. And you kinda feel bad because that’s just carbs.”
In a small town, it’s easy for neighbors to see each other’s habits. In rural Oregon, there’s strong pride in self-sufficiency and some people are skeptical about those who rely on assistance.
“There’s a definite ‘suck off the government’ mentality,” says Conro, owner of Mrs. Z’s Jordan Valley. She says at the same time, people are generous in the community. “This little place has five churches, maybe six. That’s a lot of Christians. They want to help their neighbor.”
Back in her trailer home, Mariann Duffy is seasoning that homemade stroganoff while her eleven-year-old son stands by. “Dinner’s almost ready, buddy,” she tells him. “I know you’re hungry, huh?”
Duffy says she’s sometimes criticized by neighbors for living on public assistance. She says it doesn’t get to her. “They are not in my shoes, they have no idea what goes in my house. We try to live the best way we can. We’ve always worked till now, and we were hard workers.”
She says she doesn’t rely on SNAP because she wants to. She does it because she has to.
Amanda Peacher is a 2014 Equal Voice Journalism Fellow. This story was produced with support from the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Journalism Fellowship and the Journalism Center on Children & Families.