Sue is one Oregonian who knows the pain of choosing between health care, gas for her car or eating a square meal. Each month, as she faces her pile of bills, the Pendleton mother is seized with a familiar feeling.

"Desperation," said Sue, who asked the EO not to use her last name.

She keeps detailed records and her budget handy "so I know what has to be paid and what's going to be shut off."

Kacie Keffler, a single mom from Pendleton, manages to feed her two pre-school children for the first two weeks of each month on food stamps. After that, it's touch and go. She's learned to find deals on hamburger and chicken for dinners and relies on cheaper food items like ramen and Cup-o-Noodles for lunches.

"I've always been able to get food for my kids," Keffler said.

Keffler said her heart breaks at Christmastime when she must choose between presents and a festive meal.

"You want to a make a good holiday dinner and you can't," she said.

Sue and Keffler both struggle with "food insecurity."

In the late 90s, more people went hungry or experienced "food insecurity" than in any other state. Since then, things have turned around at a painfully slow pace and Oregon now bucks a national trend of increasing food insecurity and hunger.

Locally, things aren't so clear.

Dave Hughes, the director of Hermiston's Agape House, said hunger appears to be on the rise in his neck of the woods.

"We are seeing a growing number of people coming to Agape House in need of food," Hughes said. "During November and December, we had twice as many new applicants as we have seen historically."

Agape also received more requests for help paying for gas and utilities.

Stanfield's food pantry, the Food Basket, serves about 40-50 families twice a month.

Jim Williams, the pantry's manager, said the number of clients fluctuates, but lately is on the decrease. As he scooped flour into plastic bags, he talked about the pantry's five-year history.

"During our first year, Oregon was still the hungriest state," Williams said. "We're still in the top 10."

Locally, he said, need increased somewhat, though it seems to be on a downward track during the last six months (historically). Need fluctuates from season to season.

"In the last two months of the year, we start to peak," Williams said.

Clientele drops somewhat in the spring when local agriculture gears up.

Social scientists classify households as "food-secure," "food-insecure without hunger," or "food-insecure with hunger" to describe the seriousness of their plight.

A family that has to choose between paying rent or buying food or other difficult choices during the year are categorized as "food insecure." Those who have many indicators of such challenges are categorized as "hungry."

Oregon State University researchers found that Oregon's rural and Hispanic households struggle more often than urban and non-Hispanic households to provide enough food for everyone in their family,

In rural households, women who worked in administrative support, sales, blue collar, or service occupations, fared far worse compared to professional, technical, or managerial occupations. Ironically, some of the most common jobs in food-insecure households were in the food preparation and food serving industries.

The same pattern, the OSU study found, was not nearly as obvious for employed men.

Paul Chavez works as the community service manager for CAPECO (Community Action Program East Central Oregon. CAPECO serves a regional food bank, supplying local food pantries.

Chavez said Oregon is no longer the hungriest state in the Union.

"We've been able to pull ourselves out of that ranking," she said.

Chavez attributed part of the improvement to a bumped-up food stamp program, both availability and outreach, and paying more attention to the root causes of hunger.

But, the state still has a long, long way to go, she said.

"It's getting better statistically, but we're nowhere close to where we should be," Chavez said.

In an average month, 192,000 people - including 71,000 children - in Oregon and across the river in Clark County, Washington, eat meals from an emergency food box distributed through member agencies of the Oregon Food Bank Network. OFB provides emergency food to its network of 20 regional food banks like CAPECO and to more than 900 agencies throughout Oregon.

CAPECO doesn't fight hunger with just food handouts and food stamps, Chavez said. The agency also helps people find affordable housing and health insurance. It's not all about food, she said, but rather helping people become self sufficient.

"Food pantries were never meant to be the first line of defense," she said. "We are really supposed to be the safety net under the safety net."

Having a job doesn't insure food security, say the two Pendleton women, both CAPECO clients.

"I work full-time and I still have trouble," said Sue, who works at a restaurant.

Keffler recently secured part-time work. She feels more self-sufficient, but so far isn't better off financially.

"I actually make less than I did," she said.

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