Friday, September 06, 2013

Food-stamp debate highlights high levels of rural food insecurity; county data available

Nearly 48 million Americans receive food stamps, and “more than half the counties with the highest concentration of food insecurity are rural, according to an analysis by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports for The New York Times. To view a Feeding America map of food insecurity by county, click here. Here's a screenshot as an example:

While finding the next meal is a challenge for many, it could become even more difficult if the House passes legislation proposed by Republicans to cut "$40 billion more in food stamps over the next 10 years by imposing work requirements and eliminating waivers for some able-bodied adults."

No matter what Congress decides when it reconvenes next week, benefits will be reduced in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires, Stolberg notes. If the legislation passes, "the cuts would push 4 million to 6 million low-income people, including millions of 'very low-income unemployed parents' who want to work but cannot find jobs, off the rolls, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research organization. . . . Experts say the problem is particularly acute in rural regions."

And the perception by many, including some Republicans who support the bill, that those on food stamps are too lazy to work, or are homeless, is a misconception. Maura Daly, of Feeding America, told Stolberg, “People have a lot of misimpressions about hunger in America. People think it’s associated with homelessness when, in fact, it is working poor families, it’s kids, it’s the disabled.” Hunger is often invisible, she said, and in rural areas it is even more so." (Read more)

Dollar stores continue to boom all over

Dollar stores have long been fixtures in rural towns, but now they are popping up in places that aren’t even towns and continuing to steal market share from larger competitors, as more consumers have turned away from big-box chains like Wal-Mart and Target and are doing their shopping at dollar stores. Paul Ziobro reports for The Wall Street Journal that stores like Dollar General and Dollar Tree have flourished, with Dollar General reporting an 11 percent increase in sales for the second quarter. Dollar Tree's shares were up 4.3 percent Wednesday and have gained more than 25 percent so far this year. There are 10,866 Dollar General Stores and 4,763 Dollar Trees. (Bloomberg photo)

"The migration of consumers down the retail ladder shows that while the economy shows signs of improvement, plenty of shoppers remain frugal and are closely watching their spending," Ziobro writes. Dollar Tree sells its items for $1 or less, while Dollar General's products sometimes cost a little bit more, but "having a broader selection of food, as well as adding tobacco products, is helping Dollar General steal share from discounters, drug stores and supermarkets. Dollar General said around two-thirds of the people who buy tobacco also buy at least one more item." (Read more) (WSJ Graphic)

American households continued to suffer after recession ended, Census reports

American households continued to face hardships even in the aftermath of the recession. The Census Bureau said in a report released Thursday that this is the case for more than a fifth of American households, Emily Alpert reports for the Los Angeles Times. (Associated Press photo by David Goldman: Michael and Patricia Jackson of Marietta, Ga., struggled to keep a house worth $100,000 less than what they owed)

Being unable to cover rent or mortgage payments, leaving bills unpaid, losing phone service, skipping needed doctor visits, lacking enough food for the family and other financial struggles were some of the hardships noted.

Such hardships remained more prevalent in 2011 than in 2005, before the downturn. American households unable to cover "essential expenses" of any kind rose from 14 percent to 16 percent, households suffering from food shortages jumped from 2 percent to 3 percent and households with unpaid rent or mortgage climbed from 6 percent to 8 percent, writes Alpert. 

The report also found that while most Americans believe they will get help from community agencies and those close to them when they are in financial binds, a much smaller share of households actually receive such help, writes Alpert. For example, when households had trouble paying rent or mortgage, only 5 percent were helped by friends, 17 percent by family and 10 percent from elsewhere, the report found.

Despite the financial hardships, the amount of technology in households increased. The report showed that in 2011, 78 percent of households surveyed had a computer, compared to 67 percent in 2005. Cellphones were found in 89 percent of households in 2011, up from 71 percent in 2005, Alpert writes.

The report is based on the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which interviewed more than 36,000 American households from May to August 2011. The report is here.

Grange suffering steep decline in membership

The National Grange, the nation’s oldest farm and rural public-interest organization, has seen its active membership fall from 270,000 in 1991 to 70,000 in 2012, and nearly half the local chapters have shut down, dropping from about  3,900 to 2,000, Clarke Canfield reports for The Associated Press. Vicki Huff, master of the Maine State Grange, whose membership has dropped from 60,000 to 5,000, told Canfield that younger people aren't interested in joining. ‘To keep things going, you need new members. To get word out to the community, that’s sometimes difficult," she said. (AP photo by Robert Bukaty: The Grange hall in West Bath, Maine, is 110 years old) 

"The national group, officially called the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, was the first nationwide farm organization when it was founded in 1867, advocating for the causes of farmers," Canfield writes. "Local chapters, or granges, popped up across the country, their grange halls offering places where farmers could hold community events, meet neighbors, compare farm prices and band together for the good of the community." The group peaked in the 50s, but the popularity of television is blamed by some for the initial decline in membership. The article doesn't mention other likely reasons: fewer Americans are working in agriculture, and more rural residents are commuting, leaving less time for civic activities.

John Brigance, of the West Bath Seaside Grange in West Bath, Maine, told Canfield, ‘‘In this day and age, to get people away from their television and computers for five minutes is a challenge. It’s a challenge to show people it’s still relevant." (Read more)

National parks trying to appeal to minorities

In an attempt to create interest in national parks, which have struggled in recent years to attract more visitors, the National Park Service is mounting a new publicity campaign aimed at minorities, who have historically shown little interest in visiting the parks, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. Only about 20 percent of park visitors are non-white, and only 10 percent are Hispanic. (NYT photo by Matthew Ryan Williams: American Latino Expeditions visitors at Olympic National Park in Washington state)

"One way the service has been fighting to break through is with a program called American Latino Expeditions...with expenses paid for mostly through corporate donations — part of a multipronged effort to turn the Park Service’s demographic battleship around," Johnson writes. Another group, Girl Trek, "a national nonprofit group, organizes fitness-oriented park hikes for African-Americans."

"New attractions are part of the mix, too," Johnson writes. "National monuments managed by the Park Service have been created in the past few years to recognize more minority figures in American history, like Cesar Chavez, the farm labor organizer, and Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame." (Read more)

Chobani recalls yogurt, but USDA sticks with company for school lunch program

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday "that Greek yogurt maker Chobani is voluntarily recalling some of its product after customers complained of illness and mold. The recall comes just weeks after USDA selected the company to supply Greek yogurt to four states' school lunch programs as part of a pilot," Aarian Marshall reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Chobani had identified a 'type of mold commonly found in the dairy environment,' but said the mold only affected less than 5 percent of production and was limited to those products produced at a facility in Idaho."

Despite the recall, "USDA says, however, that the pilot program has not been affected," Marshall writes "The first shipments of yogurt will not reach schools until the second half of September, and the department says it is working with Chobani to ensure that the Greek yogurt given to students participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is safe."

The pilot programs will take place through December in New York, Idaho, Arizona and Tennessee, Marshall writes. Then USDA "will determine whether to add the meat-free protein source to the national program." (Read more)

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Illegal drug use rising among Americans over 50; remnant of a Baby Boomer rite of passage?

Are baby boomers becoming the driving force behind America's drug epidemic? The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a continuing poll of about 67,500 Americans evenly distributed over the nation, found that among respondents ages 50-54, the number who said they had used illegal drugs within the past 30 days was 7.2 percent last year, more than double the 3.4 percent reported in 2002, says The Crime Report.

Numbers rose more than 300 percent among those aged 55 to 59, to 6.6 percent from 1.9 percent in 2002, and among those 60 to 64, to 3.6 percent from 1.1 percent in 2003. People who are now 55 to 64 were in their teens or early 20s when drug use soared in the last 1960s and early 1970s. (Graphic shows responses from those 50 and older)

Overall, "the report estimates that about 9.2 percent of Americans were illicit drug users in 2012, up from 8.1 percent four years earlier," according to The Crime Report. "Marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug. While overall drug use and marijuana use are on the rise, methamphetamine use has declined dramatically. In 2006, an estimated 731,000 Americans, or 0.3 percent of the population, were methamphetamine users; the report estimates that figure dropped to 440,000, or 0.2 percent, in 2012." (Read more) To read the full report click here.

Coal mines, coal-fired plants continue to be shut down or remain idle; maps show trend

With the Obama administration and environmentalists pushing for cleaner air and a reduction of dangerous emissions, the number of coal mines and coal-fired plants continues to decrease, with 150 coal mines idle this year, while 8,800 megawatts of coal-fired units were closed in 2012, and another 5,781 megawatts are projected to be closed this year, Mark Jaffe reports for The Denver Post.

Central Appalachia has been hit hardest by the closure of coal mines, with six of the 10 larges mines that were idle located in that region, Jaffe writes. "Production data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows that mines idled in the first half of 2013 produced a combined 11.4 million tons of coal in 2012." (Graphic by SNL Energy shows mine closings in three Appalachian basins, Illinois Basin and Gulf Coast basin, with inset for Southwest; click on image for larger version)

Clean Air Act regulations are expected to push 25,000 to 40,000 megawatts of smaller, older coal plants into retirement, in addition to the 5,000 megawatts of retirements that have already been  announced, according to Source Watch. Some analysis says that as many as 60,000 megawatts are at risk of being shut down. (Read more) (Maps by SNL Financial show planned shutdowns by North American Electric Reliability Corp. regions)

Towns that bought shares of coal plant to get cheaper electricity have seen prices skyrocket

UPDATE, 2/15/15: James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville takes a look at the problems the deal is causing for the Western Kentucky towns of Paducah and Princeton. In Paducah, "People really became outraged last fall, when some customers were hammered by surprise catch-up bills as high as $1,800. What had been promised to provide affordable, reliable electricity for decades, the Prairie State Energy Campus near Marissa, Ill., has turned into an economic nightmare with no long-term solution in sight." Bruggers also notes the central role of St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy.

More than 2.5 million residents of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia whose cities signed contracts with the Prairie State Energy Campus coal plant in Southern Illinois six years ago to get cheaper electricity made from lower-cost natural gas are now shelling out large sums for power, because the plant "has been hurt by cost overruns and mechanical problems," Dan Gearino reports for The Columbus Dispatch. "These communities likely will pay higher prices for electricity for another decade," Michael Hawthorne reports for the Chicago Tribune. (Dispatch map)

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit group created by Illinois lawmakers to represent residential utility customers, told Hawthorne, "Given current market conditions and forecasts, there is no question that Prairie State is not turning out to be a good deal for these communities. They locked themselves into power at a very high price when they could be doing a lot better out on the market."

Some towns are fighting back. Marceline, Mo., a town of 2,200 northwest of St. Louis, managed to "transfer the share of power that it gets from the Prairie State Energy Campus to the Missouri Public Energy Pool," Gil Aegerter reports for NBC News. "Under the agreement, the city will pay $22,000 a month for the next four and a half years – down from the $100,000 a month it has been paying."

Galion, Ohio, a town of 10,000, has asked state Attorney General Mike DeWine "to investigate the circumstances that led it and many other cities to sign contracts with an Illinois power plant," Gearino reports. Sixty Ohio communities are partial owners of Prairie State. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has also subpoenaed municipal power agencies for more information related to Prairie State, Hawthorne writes.

'Heat days' becoming a concern for schools in Midwest with some lacking air conditioning

Snow days are a fairly common in school districts where winter weather can get too dangerous. But with schools starting earlier every year, and with stifling hot temperatures across much of the U.S. this summer, schools are experiencing a new phenomenon, heat days, Don Babwin and David Mercer report for The Associated Press. Last week "some Midwest schools gave students extra water and bathroom breaks or canceled after-school activities. Districts from St. Joseph, Mo., and Frankfort, Ind., sent kids home early. In Fargo, N.D., five schools got the week off." (Star-Tribune photo by Glen Stubbe: Hiawatha Elementary School doesn't have air-conditioning.)

Minnesota students, teachers, and parents led a crusade last week that resulted in the closure of several schools for two days, after the state had record or near-record heat, Steve Brandt reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The move wasn't surprising, considering 71 of the state's schools don't have air conditioning. A study found  it would cost between $275 to $350 million over 10 years to put air-conditioning in those schools. Student Madeline Peak, 14, told Tim Post of Minnesota Public Radio, "You felt like you were sitting in a little puddle of sweat all day. It was disgusting." In an editorial in the Star Tribune, Anthony Newby opines, "Fifty years after MLK’s march on Washington, and with the worst equity gaps in the nation, we’re now unable to provide even the most basic climate controls for our children."

Matt Patton, superintendent of a one-school district in Baxter, Iowa, told the AP, "I was up on the third floor and it was 93.8 degrees in the classroom and the kids hadn't been there in hours. You put 20 bodies in there and it will go up to at least 95 and you can imagine all the sweat on the desks and textbooks." Sheila Greenwood, who oversees 380 students in a district 20 miles southwest of Champaign, Ill., told the AP, "Thinking about air conditioning – we can't even afford new textbooks."

The debate, between school officials and parents, hinges on when the school year should start. Officials want it to start earlier to allow students more training days for standardized testing and new academic standards, but  parents are unhappy that their children are heading back to school when the temperatures are still in the 90s.

Schools in Sioux City decided to move the start of school a week later next year after getting an earful from parents, the AP reports. A parent group in North Dakota is trying to launch a ballot measure requiring schools to start after Labor Day. But even if a law is passed, some districts are finding a way around it. Iowa lawmakers enacted legislation that requires school districts wait until September to open, but schools can obtain a waiver to start earlier, and 336 of 346 have done just that. Indiana lawmakers have also tried to push the first day to after Labor Day, but have run into resistance from schools. (Read more)

Not expanding Medicaid is a rural issue, rural health economist tells rural-health meeting

More than half of rural Americans who would be covered by expanded Medicaid live in states that opted not to participate in the expansion, M.L. Johnson reports for The Associated Press. Tim McBride, a health economist with the Rural Policy Research Institute, said during last week's National Rural Health Association convention in Milwaukee, “Not expanding Medicaid ... is a rural issue. I don’t see an upside to not expanding. The truth is, this will be really important money for rural hospitals, rural health providers, rural communities.”

McBride "warned those at the conference that their hospitals, as well as patients, are likely to be affected because the expansion is being paid for, in part, by cutting reimbursement rates," Johnson writes. "That means hospitals in states that have opted out won’t get any of the federal expansion money but will still see rate cuts."

He also said "the federal government has yet to grapple with increased spending on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security," Johnson writes. "But the health-care overhaul should help rural residents overall, he said, because they are less likely to have employer-provided insurance and more likely to be uninsured or rely on government-funded insurance than those in cities." (Read more)

Twenty-one states say they will not participate in Medicaid expansion to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty threshold. That includes Florida, where the Republican legislature rejected Republican Gov. Rick Scott's expansion move. The map by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows those states in orange. Dark blue states are participating, and light blue have yet to decide. Those with asterisks are exploring an approach that is likely to require federal approval, such as using Medicaid money to buy private insurance.

Online paper says Alaska's war on alcohol should focus on roots of abuse, not stronger laws

"Alaska’s war on alcohol, a costly and painful crusade waged for decades in remote villages across the rural vastness of the 49th state, has failed to help the very people it aimed to save. It has split communities, damaged families and sent an endless stream of young men to jail. Worse for the long run, it has stolen attention and resources away from the real causes of grief and dysfunction in Bush Alaska," Craig Medred writes for the Alaska Dispatch, an online newspaper. (New York Times photo by Angel Franco: Bootleggers in 2008 in Bethel, Alaska)

"Only rarely is this battle called a war, although that is what it is: Alaska's parallel to the national War on Drugs that has ripped apart the urban ghettos of America. The world of rural Alaska is not unlike the ghetto. The poverty, unemployment, crime, family turmoil and human suffering are much alike," Medred writes. "Alaska's war has cost, and continues to cost, the state and the federal government millions of dollars." And, he writes, the results have been limited. While an increased police presence in one area of 15,000 residents netted 1,500 arrests in five years, "The arrests have not stopped or even slowed the epidemic of suicide, accidental death, and violence that plagues the remote, Nebraska-sized section of Western Alaska that was studied." The cost for law enforcement and prosecutors in that area over the five-year period was $5 million.

While alcohol is said to be a factor in most crimes in Alaska, "A growing number of people examining the issue have come to the conclusion that the decades-long focus on alcohol has side-tracked any discussion of deeper, underlying problems leading people to drink, especially in rural Alaska," Medred writes. So, why do so many people in Alaska abuse alcohol? "Racism, a lack of jobs, being caught between the subsistence economy of old and the cash economy of today, young women leaving villages for urban areas, sometimes leaving badly skewed sex ratios, simmering tensions of domestic and sexual violence, the legacy of sexually abusive priests, and overpowering idleness," he answers.

"Instead of trying to address such complicated problems, it is much easier to blame alcohol and wage a war against it," Medred writes. "The concept is simple: If we just make people stop drinking, things will get better. But as Prohibition proved in America, as prison keepers throughout time have known, as rural Alaska villages have discovered over the course of the past three decades of 'dryness,' you can't really stop people from drinking."

And lawmakers and officials, such as Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, believe the way to stop the war on alcohol is with stronger laws, Medred writes. The result has been an increase in dry counties. But that has only led to dangerous home brews and bootlegging. "The first step to solving problems, psychiatrists say, is to talk about them. But there are problems in rural Alaska no one wants to talk about. It's so much easier to talk about booze." (Read more)

Newspaper in depressed coal county asks readers for suggestions on how to turn it around

While many working Americans enjoyed a paid day off from work Monday, Labor Day meant nothing to many residents in Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is shrinking. Harlan County had the state's highest unemployment rate in July, 17.2 percent. The national average was 7.4 percent. In Harlan County, where 29,000 people live, 1,906 were out of work and actively seeking employment, but there are hundreds more who are unemployed but have exhausted their jobless benefits, says an editorial in the Harlan Daily Enterprise. (Bureau of Labor Statistics graphic)
"As a result, it is well documented that our entire community — whether you are working in mining, health care, education, private business or any other occupation — is suffering," the editorial says. "It goes without saying that many are frustrated. Miners who have worked long, hard years have no prospects for jobs at this time. Many of these same miners have, or will soon, exhaust their unemployment compensation benefits. We shudder when thinking of what is next for them and their families. The support industries are seeing the same scenario."

Harlan has few job opportunities, having been hit hard by the loss of coal jobs. "Since mid-2011, Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 5,700 coal jobs, or nearly 42 percent," Bill Estep reported last month for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The loss of jobs has also led to a decrease in population, with numbers expected to continue to drop. (H-L chart)

The editorial concludes, "If we don’t join forces and do something now, we will continue to see our family, friends and neighbors remain or become unemployed. We may find ourselves in the same predicament. We welcome and encourage you in the days and months ahead to share your thoughts and suggestions as letters to the editor on where we need to go and how we should get there. You could be the vital link to the successful plan. Hopefully, next year’s Labor Day can be marked with a true celebration in Harlan County." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Big natural-gas company agrees to pay Pa. leaseholders $7.5 million in underpaid royalties

"Chesapeake Energy Corp. has signed its name to a $7.5 million settlement with Pennsylvania landowners alleging that the natural gas producer underpaid royalties to leaseholders," Joel Kirkland reports for Environment and Energy News. "The proposed settlement came as a surprise late Friday, arriving a couple of hours after a class-action lawsuit was filed against Chesapeake in U.S. District Court in Scranton, Pa. The suit charged that the state's largest gas producer has been slashing royalty payments agreed to in lease contracts by improperly deducting the cost of moving gas from the wellhead to gas hubs, processing plants and interstate pipelines."

The lawsuit "also alleges that Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, the regional subsidiary of the Oklahoma City-based gas giant, has based royalty payments on the sale of unprocessed gas at below-market prices," Kirkland writes. In June the The Herald of Sharon, Pa., reported that the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau found that Chesapeake Appalachia was sometimes deducting as much as 88 percent of the royalty payment from landowners in the Marcellus Shale region.

"The underlying issue revolves around a 'market enhancement' clause in Chesapeake's leases. It prohibits deductions for gas gathering and processing, unless the company decides those costs 'enhance' the gas before selling it into the larger market," Kirkland writes. "Under the proposal, Chesapeake would pay 55 percent of post-production costs that was deducted from royalty payments in the past. In the future, the settlement bars Chesapeake from charging leaseholders 100 percent of post-production costs." (Read more)

News Corp. sells 33 publications to investors, who hire GateHouse Media to manage them

News Corp., which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, announced Tuesday it has sold the Dow Jones Local Media Group, which operates 15 weeklies, eight dailies and 33 overall publications, many of them rural, to an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group. But the publications will be managed by GateHouse Media, a company that runs more than 400 community publications and approximately 350 related websites, states a press release from News Corp. 

Weeklies and magazines in the deal include the Barnstable Patriot (Barnstable, Mass.), The Inquirer & Mirror (Nantucket, Mass.), The Advocate (Fairhaven, Mass.), The Chronicle (Dartmouth, Mass.), The Fall River Spirit (Fall River, Mass.), the Middleboro Gazette (Middleborough, Mass.), The Spectator (Somerset, Mass.), The Exeter News-Letter (Exeter, N.H.), The Hampton Union (Hampton, N.H.), The Rockingham News of (Plaistow, N.H.), the     York County Coast Star (Kennebunk, Me.), The York Weekly (York, Me.), The Gazette (Port Jervis, N.Y.), the Nickel (Medford, Ore.), the Limelight Deals (Middletown, N.Y.), the Marketing Blacksmith (Middletown, N.Y.), Cape Cod View, and Nantucket Today.

The eight dailies are the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, N.Y.); Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, Mass.); The Record (Stockton, Calif.); The Standard-Times (New Bedford, Mass.); The Pocono Record (Stroudsburg, Pa.); The Herald (Portsmouth, N.H.); The Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.), and The Daily Tidings (Ashland, Ore.). (Read more)

Long-distance traveling prairie chicken covers 1,180 miles through Missouri and Iowa

One prairie chicken has logged enough miles since April 4 to have completed 45 marathons. In all, the chicken has traveled 1,180 miles through Iowa and Missouri, though sometimes it only goes around and around in circles. Still, it seems impressive for one small bird. (Photo submitted to Des Moines Register)

The long-distance traveler, No. 112, "is part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to reintroduce a species that once gathered in great flocks of as many as 30,000 but disappeared from the Iowa landscape by the 1950s because of over-hunting and the cultivation of the vast majority of Iowa’s prairies and grasslands for agriculture," Mike Kilen reports for the Des Moines Register.

Hunting the birds "was outlawed in 1917 in Iowa, but the loss of habitat couldn’t sustain any re-population," Kilen reports. "In the early 1990s, wildlife officials brought in birds from Kansas but only a couple dozen were left by 2000. The DNR translocated 48 more birds in 2012 and 73 in 2013, this time from Nebraska to the Grand River Grasslands, a 70,000-acre project by both Iowa and Missouri natural resources departments and other conservation partners." (Iowa State University map)

No. 112, one of 10 birds fit with GPS monitors, immediately took off on a journey that took it in roughly widening circles, then a veer toward its old haunts. Jen Vogel of Iowa State University told Kilen, “We did expect a range of maybe 50 miles. We really didn’t expect this distance. Nobody really knows why. We might assume that since she came from Nebraska and we moved her to Iowa, she doesn’t know where the appropriate habitat might be. It seems like the bird is looking.” (Read more)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

From rural schools to U.S. bureaucrats, interviews are chilled by 'minders' from official PR offices

The Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville had a great community story Aug. 30 by Zirconia Alleyne about a fifth-grade teacher who held a mock funeral to bury bad writing habits, allowing students to rip up index cards with improper sentence structures and words like "ain't" and "gonna" and put the papers in graves, hoping to forever say goodbye to bad grammar. (Alleyne photo: Students burying bad grammar)

But just getting stories like this one from the county school system have been an uphill battle for the 10,000-circulation daily newspaper. In an editorial, opinion writer Jennifer Brown wrote: "It has become almost impossible to tell these kinds of stories from the Christian County Public Schools. Over the past couple of years, the central office has insisted that the district’s community relations director be present for all interviews between a New Era reporter and a school employee. Over and over, we’ve been told it is the district’s 'procedure.'

"We want to get along, but district administrators fail to understand that using a media handler puts a chill on the natural conversation that should happen between a news reporter and a story subject. Although it might not be intentional, there is stiffness to an interview that is observed by a public relations employee."

Brown points to the recent Society of Professional Journalists convention, where "Sonny Albarado, projects editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the outgoing SPJ president, spoke about 'roadblocks' journalists encounter when they are trying to gather information for the public," Brown writes. Albarado said, “There’s … the pernicious practice at all levels of government of cutting off journalists’ access to public officials and agency experts by forcing all queries to go through a public affairs officer or public information officer. And, of course, the PAO has to monitor the interview, if by chance you are granted an audience. This further chills the prospects for candid conversation and an informed citizenry.”

Incoming SPJ president David Cuillier, journalism-school director at the University of Arizona, "said he’ll be advocating this year for the First Amendment, press rights and freedom of information," Brown reports. Cuillier said in a speech: “I’m also going to push back against excessive controls by government to manage the message, manage reporters." (Read more)

Two Amish newspapers serve a huge, divided, growing and non-geographic community

Unlike many if not most newspapers, The Budget, a 123-year-old weekly newspaper, "which carries the news of Amish and Mennonite communities, from Diagonal, Iowa to the three Minnesota outposts of Bertha, Clarissa and Lenora," is growing, Clare Ansberry reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Its 18,000 subscribers for the most part don't text, email, have computers or smartphones. They use The Budget, which is mailed to their homes, to keep them informed, post notices or exchange helpful hints."

The Ohio-based newspaper, which has 860 correspondents, who aren't paid except with a subscription, publishes stories on simple matters such as "who got married, who went to church, who received dentures—and how 11 chickens went missing when Toby Schrocks of Cisne, Ill., forgot to close the chicken-house door," Ansberry writes. Budget publisher Keith Rathbun (Ansberry photo), who isn't Amish, told her, "It's like someone talking over the back fence to a neighbor."

Each week the Budget runs about 500 letters on 44 to 46 pages that contain no photos at a subscription rate of $45, or $42 for newlyweds. "It does have competition," Ansberry notes. "Die Botschaft—German for "The Message"—costs $44 a year, has a circulation of about 12,000 and also consists of letters and reports from contributors. It's a more conservative alternative to the Budget, which some Amish readers thought was too liberal, say Amish scholars."

The papers have advantages others don't—notably a captive and growing readership, Steve Nolt, a Mennonite history professor at Goshen College in Indiana, pointed out to Ansberry. The most conservative Amish group, whose members limit access to technology, stands at 280,000 in the U.S. and doubles about every 20 years, he said. Most Amish and Mennonites are farmers or tradesmen.

Die Botschaft doesn't allow photos of people in ads, following the Biblical proscription against graven images, but does allow illustrations of equipment and animals, Ansberry writes. "The more lenient Budget, meanwhile, ran an ad with a photo of an 87-year-old grandmother providing a testimonial for a pill that helped stop her itching within three days. It also featured a picture of an Amish couple who lost weight with the help of a health coach." (Read more)

African Americans with Southern farming heritage bring farmers' market to Chicago's South Side

The south side of Chicago has become a magnet for African American farmers in Northern Illinois to sell fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price to mostly black residents. But the back story of how the markets came to be is a fascinating one, rich in tradition, Samuel Freedman reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Nathan Weber: T. C. Barker, 73, and his grandson, C. J. Dodd, 14)

Many of the sellers were born in the rural South, some into families that owned or worked farms, before circumstances (such as one family losing its land after the patriarch died with no will) forced them to move to Chicago as part of the great Northern Migration of black Southerners. After retiring from years working in the city, a handful decided to return to the country, buying property 60 miles south of Chicago in the Pembroke Township, which had been settled by freed slaves and is now home to a host of black farmers, Freedman writes. On Saturday mornings in the summer a small group sells their goods at the market, which is sponsored by one of Chicago’s most formidable black churches, Trinity United Church of Christ, which has 8,500 members, and once counted President Obama as a member.

"It helps support the precarious livelihood of the farmers, and it addresses the congregation’s need for fresh produce in an expanse of the South Side considered a 'food desert' for its paucity of supermarkets and greengrocers," Freedman writes. The market was created by the Rev. Otis Moss III and his wife Monica, "a mother of two with a fervent interest in health and wellness. She pointed out the difficulty that Trinity members and other neighborhood residents had finding fresh fruits and vegetables close by at affordable prices. On a typical summer Saturday, about 150 customers patronize the farmers, who make as much as $150 for a five-hour stint." (Read more)

Big-city writer spends summer traveling through rural heartland, finds many exotic wonders

Seth Kugel
UPDATE Sept. 6: "When I announced my 'through the heartland' road trip, over 1,000 readers wrote in with tips in the comments section, on Facebook and Twitter and via e-mail. I used as many of your recommendations as possible — but hundreds of good ideas inevitably went unused. That has left me with a choice: share the best with you, or keep them to myself as a personal reserve of story ideas that could last me for years and make my job exceedingly easy," Kugel writes. He decided to share a few more stories about his trip. To read more about Kugel's adventures click here.

Though he writes the Frugal Traveler feature for The New York Times, self-described city slicker Seth Kugel admits that before this summer he knew little about American life outside the big city, So, he decided to spend five weeks this summer traveling from Baton Rouge, La., to Fargo, N.D., visiting 10 states to see what the heart if rural America is all about. What he found is that the South and the Midwest heartland have plenty of exciting and interesting wonders to offer any traveler.

"I’ve made my way through Latin America, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia and southern China," Kugel writes. "But a spin through the middle of my own country was every bit as, well, exotic — revealing you don’t have to go abroad to experience new music, annual rites and political views far different from what you find at home."

Kugel, who went to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota, visited county fairs, museums, national landmarks, the Ozarks, farmers' markets, mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, and off-the-beaten path local establishments. He met Native Americans, farmers, immigrants, and many locals who offered interesting conversation and opinions about everything from politics to immigration. He learned that even though New York is culturally diverse, so is the rest of the country, if yoy just scratch the surface. Mostly he learned that "America far from New York City is a strange and exotic place indeed." (Read more)

During his trip Kugel wrote an introduction, and stories about Louisiana, Memphis, the Ozarks, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota. (Kugel photo: A tractor motors through downtown Pella, Iowa, population 10,000)

Journalism workshop in Cal. to explore health data

The Association of Health Care Journalists is hosting a workshop Oct. 3-4 in Anaheim, Calif. The first day of the Health Data Journalism Workshop will feature hands-on classes focused on spreadsheet basics for the novices. The second day will show how data will transform coverage of health care; the opening of data in the era of health reform; health stories done through Census data; online exchanges and other health insurance; data on doctors and drugs; drawing the facts through data visualization; and a bonus state-data session for California reporters.

Faculty include: Katherine Hempstead, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;  Larry Levitt, Kaiser Family Foundation, Karl Stark, The Philadelphia Inquirer; Charles Ornstein, ProPublica; Cheryl Phillips, The Seattle Times; Ronald Campbell, The Orange County Register; and Stephen Doig, professor, Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University. A limited number of travel assistance stipends are available. Deadline to register for the workshop is noon on Sept. 23. To register click here.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Find out how many people in your county have health insurance and how many don't

With enrollment in state health-insurance exchanges four weeks away, the Census Bureau has just issued some very useful information for rural journalists: county-by-county figures, by age group, on Americans with and without health coverage.
Even better than maps like the one above is an interactive tool that allows you to map and rank counties by various factors. A little clicking reveals that Esmeralda County, Nevada, probably has the highest percentage of children without health insurance, 32.2 percent. We must say "probably" because the small samples for each county create high error margins, in Esmeralda's case plus or minus 6 percentage points. It is followed by Sherman County, Texas, 28.3 percent; Aleutians East Borough, Alaska, 27.9; Briscoe County Texas, 27; and Garfield County, Mont., 26.7. Texas dominates the top 50.

The most important numbers are for all Americans under 65, who do not qualify for Medicare. Aleutians East leads with 46 percent uninsured, followed by four Texas counties: Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Presidio and Webb, all between 39 and 36 percent. The data are from 2011, the last year available; data going back to 2006 allow you to check trends among states during those six years. Here is an example of a statewide story, mentioning individual counties.

The data can also be sliced by income levels: less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line, the new eligibility threshold for Medicaid in states that have expanded it; and less than 400 percent of the poverty line, the threshold for subsidies for insurance policies that the exchanges will offer. And you can create your own state-by-state maps, suitable for publication. The Census site is here; the interactive tool is here. To get county data, limit the geography to a state and check the Show Counties box.

Fried chicken is 'trending feverishly' among chefs

Chicken at JCT. Kitchen and Bar, Atlanta
(Photo by Iain Bagwell, Wall Street Journal)
Fried chicken is hot. Sure, that's the best way to eat it, but if done well, it's also good cold, and by hot we also mean spicy. But what we're really talking about here is buzz, not sizzle, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

"Old-fashioned, hard to eat, messy to cook, downmarket and déclassé, it once seemed to belong to the South—and not in a good way. Yet now, against all odds, this old-school classic is trending feverishly," writes Josh Ozersky. "Rock-star chefs in hipster enclaves have foodies in a tizzy over weekly fried chicken nights. . . . And most radical of all, Korean immigrants have brought their own version of the dish to this country—one so spicy, crisp and addictive it threatens to snatch away the South's golden-brown crown."

Ozersky names some leading chicken chefs, restaurants and their treatments, and quotes "the dish's leading scholar," John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi: "Fried chicken is a rural dish from our past that has become even more beloved in the modern moment. It's a primal food, eaten with your hands, with a bone at its core. It's something we can all connect with, whether we're from the South or not." (Read more; subscription may be required)