OAKRIDGE, Ore. -- Schools in Oakridge send kids home with a free bag of food at the end of the week.
They started doing it because so many kids were coming back hungry on Monday.
"For some of these kids, they get their best meals at school," said Don Kordosky, superintendent of Oakridge schools.
Hunger is a growing problem across Oregon, and especially in struggling small towns like Oakridge.
The state now has the dubious distinction of having the worst rate of child hunger in the country.
A report released by Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit, found 29 percent of Oregon kids
aren't consistently getting enough good food to eat. That's more than West Virginia, Louisiana and every other state.
That figure may be surprising, given Oregon's reputation as a relatively strong agricultural state.
But it's not to many of the volunteers working on the front lines of poverty.
"We've had bad times before but, not as bad as we're having right now," said Madeline Duncan, who started volunteering at Oakridge's food pantry in 1986, and now runs the place.
She gave a tour of picked over shelves of canned goods, and a dairy crate with little left.
"It's pretty bare right now," she said.
Hunger-relief advocates who've studied the problem say Oregon's problem is so pronounced because, compared with other states, there's a big gap between wages and the cost of living.
In fact, wages have risen less than 4 percent since 2000, according to a state data service.
Meanwhile, rents and mortgages have climbed, and the state's consumer price index in urban areas jumped 25 percent.
For struggling families in places like Oakridge, keeping food on the table involves a hard set of trade-offs.
- Gas up the truck or spend the money on groceries.
- Go to McDonald's or pay a premium for vegetables.
- Cut back mom and dad's portions so the kids get enough.
"There's been many times where myself and my wife we'll have a sandwich during the day, a grilled cheese sandwich and that's it," said Jim Benham, a former long-haul trucker who had to stop working after a debilitating accident.
Benham and his wife, Jennifer, are feeding a family of four on a budget of a few hundred bucks a month.
Kids who don't get good nutrition are more likely to face health problems down the road. Research shows they have weaker immune systems. They also are more likely to face emotional problems, such as depression, and behaviorial problems, such as anxiety.