SEATTLE — The abundance of summer fruits and vegetables filling Washington supermarkets are a colorful but ironic contrast to some new statistics coming out the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week that show hunger in the state has grown significantly since the recession started.
From 2008 to the end of 2011, the number of hungry families in Washington grew from about 88,000 to 163,000. Only six other states had hunger growth rates that were higher than Washington between 2010 and 2011, the USDA reported.
Hunger in Washington state is now above the national average, and worse than hunger levels in both Oregon and Idaho. In 2011, 15.4 percent of Washington households reported some level of food insecurity, which means they regularly struggle to get enough food for their families, according to the USDA.
About 6.2 percent of Washington residents reach a higher threshold and are considered hungry, which means they are going without some meals because there isn’t enough money for food.
The national numbers are 14.9 percent for food insecurity and 5.7 percent for hunger.
The Children’s Alliance, an advocacy group for children, youth and families, estimates that 440,000 children in Washington, or 25 percent, live in households where there’s not enough food for everyone to eat.
The number of kids qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunches at Washington public schools has increased from about 390,000 kids in May 2008 to about 470,000 in May 2012, according to statistics from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The new numbers are not surprising to Linda Stone, food policy director for the Children’s Alliance. Since 2007, the advocacy group has seen more evidence of hunger, from a steady increase in kids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches to rising demand at food banks around the state.
“Underneath the statistics there are a lot of empty refrigerators and parents who are skipping meals so that kids will get to eat,” Stone said.
Those refrigerators are being partially filled by the state’s food banks.
Northwest Harvest, which distributes food across Washington, reports it has gone from distributing 17 million pounds of food to 26 million pounds to food banks and meal programs over the past four years, according to spokeswoman Andrea Flatley.
In 2008, people were visiting these food programs and food banks more than 500,000 times a month. So far in 2012, people are visiting food banks and meal programs that Northwest Harvest works with around 700,000 times a month, Flatley said.
State officials and nonprofit groups have found that some of the hungriest counties in Washington are where most of the state’s food is being grown, in part because those areas tend to have the least number of summer food programs for kids, Stone said.
Washington state ranks 40th out of the 50 states for availability of summer food programs, but there’s some good news. Some progress is being made by individuals setting up new programs in parks and through school districts.
“Things are still tough out there,” Stone said. “The bright spots are the people who are trying to turn it around.”
In Sprague in north-central Washington, a local librarian started a new summer meal program. A new meal program in the small town of Fairfield, near Spokane, served about 1,000 meals this past summer. Auburn and Kent school districts transported lunches by school bus to the places where kids hang out during the summer. And free summer lunches were provided to kids in Renton parks.