A struggling food pantry system and lack of access to affordable, healthy food are among the most significant threats to food security on the Palouse, according to a new study initiated by local organizations.

The recently released Palouse Tables Project report is the culmination of a little more than a year of research conducted by local organizations and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Innovia Foundation. The report can be found on the Community Action Center's website.

The report looks at the causes and possible solutions to hunger in Whitman and Latah counties. Demographic data, meetings with communities and input from focus groups were among the ways the study gathered information.

Joseph Astorino, director of the Palouse Tables Project, said the study shows there is a range of household food insecurity on the Palouse. During the research, he said he met people who skip meals to keep their family fed, people who do not have access to food because of distance between cities with grocery stores and others who struggle with dietary restrictions.

A chart in the study showed nearly 20 percent of Whitman County residents were food insecure and nearly 18 percent in Latah County.

He said the emergency food system - which includes food pantries and other charitable food programs - is "pretty fragile" and depends on an engaged and coordinated community. While they are meant for emergencies, he said food pantries are becoming the main food staple for families for economic reasons.

A Colfax focus group member quoted in the study said 75 to 80 percent of the food they eat is from the food bank.

The future of food banks are uncertain because they are in need of younger volunteers willing to take on the task without pay, said Misty Amarena, executive director of Backyard Harvest.

"They rely heavily on volunteer management, and in most communities that volunteer management is aging out," she said.

Getting to a food pantry, or any food source, can be an insurmountable task at times given the great distance between communities in both rural counties.

Some towns do not have a grocery store, and people there must travel great distances between cities, which only adds to their expenses. It can be even more difficult for people without access to transportation.

"The last week of the month, there's no gasoline to go anywhere," a Rosalia focus group participant was quoted as saying.

The study found much of both counties, including sections of Pullman and Moscow, are considered food deserts because of the lack of food access.

"Food access is not just an income issue - we need a grocery store and a place to eat meals out once in a while, and a permanent location for our food pantry," said a Uniontown resident who took part in the study.

Astorino said one of the ways the community can address these problems is for food banks, nonprofits and other food organizations to coordinate together to identify and meet needs in the community. This coordination could lead to making services mobile. Astorino suggested a cooperative farm stand that travels from community to community offering healthy food options.

He said there should be a person in charge of overseeing this coordination, which will require the cooperation of leaders across the Palouse to identify specific needs in their towns.

"No cookie cutter solution is going to work for every small town," he said.

While Astorino said they need the help of community leaders to make this happen, Amarena said she noticed community leaders in many cities were absent from meetings with the Palouse Tables Project.

"I also noticed not as much representation from communities in need as I would have liked to have seen," she said.

Amarena said she would have liked another year to build relationships with these communities before releasing the study.

Backyard Harvest was one of the organizations involved in the Palouse Tables Project alongside Americorps, Community Action Center, University of Idaho Extension, Washington State University Center for Civic Engagement, Council on Aging, the Whitman County Food coalition and the Palouse-Clearwater Coalition.

The Palouse Tables Project will host a food summit Jan. 25 at the Latah County Fairgrounds.

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to akuipers@dnews.com.

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