Small Iowa town a win­dow into hunger prob­lem in ru­ral US

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

STORM LAKE, Iowa: Storm Lake, Iowa, ap­pears the pic­ture of eco­nomic health, a place where jobs are plen­ti­ful, the un­em­ploy­ment rate hov­ers near 3 per­cent, busy shops fill cen­tury-old brick build­ings and chil­dren ride bikes on tree­lined side­walks that end in the glare of its name­sake lake. But there’s a grow­ing prob­lem in the north­west Iowa city of 11,000, one that’s fa­mil­iar to ru­ral ar­eas around the coun­try: Thou­sands of work­ing fam­i­lies and el­derly res­i­dents don’t have enough money to feed them­selves or their chil­dren. The is­sue per­sists even as na­tional poverty rates have de­clined in the past year and prices for many food sta­ples have dropped slightly.

Storm Lake has re­sponded strongly with a large, mostly vol­un­teer ef­fort to hand out free food - eggs, ce­real, veg­eta­bles, juice - at a half-dozen pantries, along a city street and in an empty build­ing on the edge of town. “You strug­gle to live one day at a time, to stretch the bud­get,” said Her­melinda Gon­za­lez, 41, who re­lies on food from a monthly drive-up pantry to feed her seven chil­dren de­spite her hus­band’s con­struc­tion job. “I don’t know what we’d do with­out this,” she said while vol­un­teers slid boxes into her car and her 1-year-old son slept in the back seat.

Tyson Foods’ turkey and pork pro­cess­ing plants are Storm Lake’s big­gest em­ploy­ers - more than 2,700, many of whom are im­mi­grants at­tracted by wages of $15 an hour or more. But many also have large fam­i­lies, and pay­checks are eaten up by big gro­cery bills, heat­ing and cool­ing costs and higher-than-ex­pected rent due to in­creased de­mand for hous­ing that hasn’t been met by new con­struc­tion. Not hav­ing ac­cess to enough food is more se­vere in iso­lated coun­ties than ur­ban, metropoli­tan ar­eas - 64 per­cent of the coun­ties with the high­est rate of food in­se­cu­rity for chil­dren are ru­ral, ac­cord­ing to data from na­tional anti-hunger group Feed­ing Amer­ica.

While fed­eral statis­tics show in­comes among the poor­est 10 per­cent of US house­holds in­creased 7.9 per­cent last year and the pro­por­tion of Amer­i­cans in poverty dropped from 14.8 per­cent to 13.5 per­cent, small towns typ­i­cally lag ur­ban ar­eas in job and in­come growth, es­pe­cially in the Up­per Mid­west, said Gary Green, a Univer­sity of Wis­con­sinMadi­son pro­fes­sor who stud­ies ru­ral is­sues.

It’s es­pe­cially hard for im­mi­grants, he said, be­cause the com­mu­ni­ties often lack a sup­port net­work found in large cities, and if there’s an un­ex­pected ex­pense or re­duc­tion in work hours, there usu­ally aren’t rel­a­tives nearby to help. That makes it hard for hunger is­sues to be solved in ru­ral ar­eas, Green said. It all helps to ex­plain why one pantry alone, Up­per Des Moines Op­por­tu­nity, pro­vides food to about 3,200 peo­ple in Storm Lake and nearby com­mu­ni­ties. “The shelves are as empty as I’ve ever seen it,” pantry worker Melissa Keller said.

Find­ing a job isn’t the prob­lem in Storm Lake, which is hours from Des Moines and Min­neapo­lis. It’s find­ing one that pays enough to cover the bills. Shirley Ann Peter is among those who strug­gle to make ends meet. She grew up in Mi­crone­sia, moved to Storm Lake with her fa­ther who was drawn by the de­pend­able meat­pack­ing jobs and be­gan work­ing at a plant while in high school. Peter’s boyfriend pro­vides for their four chil­dren, aged 6 months to 8 years, but af­ter pay­ing the $600 in monthly rent and other ex­penses, they must seek food from a charity pantry ev­ery week. — AP

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