Students take part in the No Hungry Child lunch program at Highland Elementary School last year. The program served more than 7,100 meals in 2011. (Photo courtesy of the Marion-Polk Food Share)

Of the Keizertimes

Michelle Jacobs drove by Faith Lutheran Church two years ago and spotted an A-frame sign that read: “Food Bank Open Today.”

It might as well have heralded “Stress Relief” in blazing neon.

“My husband is a postal carrier and we’re not poor on paper, but we’re totally strapped,” Jacobs said. “It looks good on paper, but when you do the mortgage, the kids, the this, the that, and the other … there’s nothing left.”

Not too long before that day, Jacobs, who is in her early 40s, and her husband had relocated to Oregon with big dreams, they’d bought a big home south of Salem, they had a new baby girl join two teenaged sons. They were certain that they’d be able to float all of it on the their two incomes. She worked in sales and figured jobs would be easy to come by.

Then her life drifted into a downward spiral. Her teenage son began acting out, the result of behavioral problems family doctors are still trying to pinpoint. Her ill parents moved into the family home. The incomes weren’t stretching as far as they once had.

She was on her way to work after dropping her daughter off at daycare and she decided to pull in and find out if she qualified for assistance.

“I couldn’t believe I was in that situation. I’m an educated woman, my husband has a good job, I was asking myself, ‘Why the hell am I at the food bank?’” Jacobs said.

Jacobs was far from alone. If anything, she has more company now than she did two years ago. Despite politicians’ and economists’ assurances that things are looking up, hunger continues to be a problem in Marion County and Keizer, specifically.

“We’re serving more people and more first-time visitors to the food bank almost every week,” said Curt McCormack, president of the Keizer Community Food Bank (KCFB), which operates out of Faith Lutheran Church Monday evenings and Thursday mornings.

According to figures from the Marion-Polk Food Share, demand for emergency food boxes – of the kind offered by KCFB – increased by 27 percent in 2011. One in five families in Marion and Polk counties ate from emergency food boxes last year. More than 55 percent of students in all Keizer schools currently qualify for free or reduced-lunch programs.

Families like Jacobs’, despite having all the signs of outward stability, continue to suffer.

Uncomfortable with the hand she was being forced to play, Jacobs wasn’t sure what to expect that day she walked into the food bank. To help break down the mental barriers, she asked whether she could help out in addition to getting the food box.

“I bagged fresh beans that day and went home with food as well,” she said.

Proud of taking action to help alleviate stress on the family, she told her husband what she had done after he returned home from work. He was mortified.

“He picks up food for the food drive once a year on his job and he was hurt that I’d done it, which I can understand,” Jacobs said.

When she explained that she volunteered at the food bank as well, it helped salve the wound and they came to an agreement that as long as she was volunteering as well, they needed the assistance.

Things took another turn for the worse when Jacobs had to quit her job to tend to the needs of her son. Since then, she’s visited the food bank almost monthly.

“There were weeks when we had to put our groceries on the credit card and you feel awful doing that sort of thing,” she said.

Emergency food boxes are not intended as long-term solutions to the problem of hunger, but, as Jacobs discovered, they helped stretch the family budget further. By providing some core foods, families can fill in the gaps with other sources of income or use the savings to take care of other bills.

“It might mean the difference between a $140 grocery bill and an $80 grocery bill,” Jacobs said. “I’ll come home with fresh produce and bread and some canned goods. The bottom line is that it lessens the stress I feel about everything else.”

The biggest hurdle was swallowing her own pride, but she hopes by telling her story that others might seek assistance they need.

“You know in your heart you or your kids need that food. You’re not taking from anyone. If it helps, do what you can do to help out. Just put out chairs for the other people coming in,” she said. “People have tough times and thank God there’s this incredible food bank with incredible people. People look at you and they’ll smile, they’re generous, they’re kind and they won’t make you feel like you’re abusing the system.”

Editor’s note: Michelle Jacobs’ name has been changed to protect her privacy.