Small Iowa town a window into hunger problem in rural US
Posted October 12
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 tree-lined 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 U.S. 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 Wisconsin-Madison 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, ages 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.
"A lot of time the kids cry about what they want and I can't give it to them. It's hard," said Peter, 24.
Things got worse in Storm Lake last year when the bird flu epidemic caused the area's egg producers to lay off workers and Tyson to cut back hours at its turkey plant, retired minister Duane Queen said. He thought demand would lessen as the bird flu waned and people returned to work, but it's only grown in the past year.
More food pantries have opened in Storm Lake in the past couple years, and the Food Bank of Iowa has tripled deliveries since 2012 to more than 90,000 pounds in the last fiscal year. That figure doesn't count private donations made.
After he heard that food pantries were struggling to provide enough food, Queen worked with fellow Kiwanis club members to organize a food distribution site at a former hardware store.
"I want to help people," Queen said. "There's no need for people to struggle if they don't have to."
Queen and other pantry officials have seen an increase in older people who regularly seek food, people like Larry Teachout, a 70-year-old retired truck driver who supplements his $16 a month in food stamps.
"I always worked. I never before had a handout," Teachout said. "I just don't have enough money. Everyone is hurting."
About 60 families with children in Storm Lake's middle school rely on food from the curbside pantry, schools Superintendent Carl Turner said, adding that district officials will soon open one in the high school and are considering ways to help elementary school students. The parents he knows work hard and simply can't afford all the necessities, Turner said, so it makes sense to help out.
"We've seen the need," Turner said. "It's about academic achievement. It's really difficult for children to achieve at a high level if there's hunger."
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