A decade ago, low-income Oregonians were forced to choose between spending money on healthcare and food. Today, that trade-off has shifted to choosing between housing and eating

On a bad day, Amy Knight skips a meal, sometimes two, so her daughters can eat. On a worse day, Knights eldest child, 15-year-old Lexi, goes without as well so there is food for her younger sister, Sage.

You hope your kids have a better life than you. When you skip meals, and your eldest child skips meals, its no way to live. Its miserable. I hate it, said Knight.

Even when there is enough food, after the beginning of the month when the food stamp payment lands, the 35-year-old working mother is forced to compromise. She buys bulk cheap cuts of meat even if they have too much fat. Instant pasta meals at less than a dollar. Vegetables in a tin.

Knight lives outside the small city of Lebanon, Oregon, the only US state where food insecurity defined by the federal government on a range from not being able to afford healthy foods to missing meals is rising. Foremost among those struggling to put a meal on the table are single mothers, many of them working.

Ive learned to buy as cheaply as possible to try to make it stretch but even then its not enough. Like this morning before I left, the little one ate, I didnt. And I made sure the little one has at least something to eat in between classes at church for lunch. I brought me a snack bar, said Knight, who is Mormon.

I probably wont eat till dinner, which is fine, but if my oldest knew, she would be yelling at me. The oldest started skipping meals to make sure her sister ate and then she would only eat when I would eat too.

The US Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, classifies Knight as living with high food insecurity because she is missing meals. Those who still eat regularly but can afford only cheaper, less healthy foods are defined as living with low food insecurity.

Amy Knight poses with her 10-year-old daughter, Sage Gillis. Photograph: Leah Nash for the Guardian

While food insecurity has been falling across the US since the height of the great recession, it has risen in Oregon to well above the national average. A study by Mark Edwards of Oregon State Universitys School of Public Policy said the increase was driven by sharply rising housing costs as more people move into the state.

In parts of Portland rents have surged as much as 30% in a year, but rising costs have hit small towns and rural areas too. Meanwhile, some people are working two jobs or more to earn the same income as before the recession. The collapse of the timber industry, once a mainstay of rural Oregon, has had a lasting impact.

The number of people living in poverty in Portland has risen by about 75% since 2000. A decade ago, low-income Oregonians were forced to choose between spending money on healthcare and food. Today that tradeoff has shifted to housing versus eating.

Lots of folks have to choose between rent and other expenses, said Pamela Pham at the Community Alliance of Tenants in Portland. Its usually their food thats the first thing to go.

food security

Edwards noted the especially high rates of single mothers in Oregon struggling to feed themselves and sometimes their children. Forty-four percent live with food insecurity, significantly higher than the rest of the US. Of those, 90% live in rented accommodation.

Knight works for a little above the minimum wage sorting grass at a company researching drought-resistant strains. The hours see-saw. She can pull in as many as 40 a week in the summer but only half that in winter. At times shes taking home little more than $200 a week.

With two children, Knight qualifies for $344 a month in food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Snap, after the government takes account of her earnings and child support from the fathers of her daughters which does not always come. Her youngest daughter, Sage, 10, has special needs and Knight gets a small disability allowance for her.

Even in a good month, she struggles to feed three mouths. Buying cheaply means bulk cuts of meat, dividing as far as possible and freezing what isnt used immediately. I have to watch what Im buying. I buy the pound things of hamburger at three bucks a pop. I will make sure that if its a meal that would normally take 2lb of hamburger, I only use one. My meatloafs are really small because I use that pound of hamburger to make them, when the normal meat loaf, you need two, she said.

Searching for the lowest cost also means reliance on less healthy foods such as pasta side dishes. Knight said she tried to ensure the girls got something that was at least filling but she often has nothing more than instant noodles.

She laughed at a question about fresh fruit and vegetables.

Its canned corn, canned green beans. I can get the canned veggies for less than a dollar, usually, where the fresh fruit and fresh veggies, youre paying a lot more. Im like, OK, heres a package of food thats less healthy versus this would be so much better if I could get it fresh. Its the money, she said.

One in five Oregon residents are on food stamps, the fifth-highest rate in the country, in part because the state is relatively generous paying them to people earning up to 185% of the poverty level, while many other states cut off at 130%. Knights girls qualify for free school meals, like most of the students in Lebanon.

Under an experimental Oregon program, Knight gets a boost to her food stamps of about $30 a month when there is no school, to help cover the extra meals at home. But the benefits only go so far.

Amy Knight: When I lived in town, the bishop from my church noticed I was skipping meals. Photograph: Leah Nash for the Guardian

Im paying about $100 out of pocket, even with Snap. But typically I dont even have that hundred, said Knight. When I lived in town, the bishop from my church noticed I was skipping meals. He got so mad at me. He said: You need to be telling me if your food is that low. I had to get food boxes from my church.

Annie Kirschner, executive director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said Knights diet is typical of families struggling to find money.

If you go to the store with $7 and you can put together a bag of pasta and a loaf of bread and some potatoes that you can make a couple of meals out of, versus a bag of apples, youre going to choose the things that fill up your stomach, she said. Lots of pasta, lots of rice, lots of bread products. Top ramen noodles are the stereotypical example. We hear people talk about fresh fruit as being a luxury thats a splurge. Something you buy at the beginning of the month after your food stamps card has been has been filled up.

Kirschner said the situation was not going to get any better as rents in Oregon continue to escalate. We know that being a renter versus a homeowner puts people particularly at risk for struggling with hunger, and the increase in rents over the past few years is just so much faster than what people can keep up with. Its pinching the majority of families and they are living with the insecurity of knowing next year, rent is going to go up 5% or 10% or 30%, and incomes arent rising too much, she said.

Knight used to rent a house in Lebanon when she was working as an assistant in a home for the mentally disabled. She received a federal housing allowance but still had to find around $300 a month. But then Knight and her coworkers were all dismissed and replaced with cheaper part-time labour. She couldnt afford the rent, was evicted and moved back home. When she did eventually find another place to live with help from government benefits, she described it as fetid and dangerous. The oven leaked gas whenever it was turned on so she stopped using it, and the house was infected with mould. Oregon law permits landlords to evict tenants without cause; Knights told her he wanted to renovate the apartment and so she had to move out. She is convinced that he wanted to be rid of her because she played the squeaky wheel in demanding repairs.

Pham said increasing numbers of low-income families were being driven out to make way for people who can afford higher rent. Those families are then forced into substandard accommodation, which they are afraid to complain for fear of being evicted again.

Knight moved into a property on her parents six-acre homestead, 15 miles outside Lebanon. She pays rent but her family is prepared to wait until she gets her federal tax refund each year. She says she would like to get off of her parents property, but she said it can take a year or more to get approval to renew housing benefits and that it is not keeping pace with rising costs.

These days she also has a poor credit record, which landlords frown on. Im one of the lucky few that has family around that could help me, said Knight. Theres people Ive met whose kids are couch-surfing. The parents are living in a car while the kids are staying with friends. So not only are they having to try to put food in their bellies on their food stamps but also kids bellies in two different locations.

Homelessness is the great fear. People are going to pay their rent before theyre going to buy food because if you dont pay rent you are out on the streets. If you dont pay your power it gets shut off. If youre out in the street, you have child welfare wanting to take your kids. But hunger is invisible. Child welfare cant see it, said Knight.

Kirschner agrees. Hunger is very private. It happens within peoples kitchen cupboards. Its generally not talked about. You cant look at someone and tell that theyre hungry or not in this country, she said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/11/hunger-in-america-oregon-food-stamps-skipping-meals