Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Many rural families struggle to put enough food on the table, even if they have jobs

Storm Lake resident loads food at a drive-by pantry. (AP photo)
Job figures make Storm Lake, Iowa, look like "a picture of economic health," Scott McFetrigde reports for The Associated Press. The town of 11,000 has a 3 percent unemployment rate, "but there's a growing problem . . . 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." This problem is still a harsh reality for many rural residents, even after the Census Bureau announced last month that the national poverty rate decreased from 14.7 percent in 2014, to 13.5 percent in 2015.

"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," McFetridge writes. "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."

Storm Lake responded to the poverty spike with a mostly volunteer effort, handing out free food -- eggs, cereal, vegetables, juice -- at local pantries and different parts of town to help residents, AP reports. "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."

Hermelinda Gonzalez, who relies on food from a monthly drive-up pantry to feed her seven children despite her husband's construction job, told AP: "You struggle to live one day at a time, to stretch the budget. I don't know what we'd do without this."

"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," McFetridge reports.

Superintendent Carl Turner told AP that about 60 families with children in Storm Lake middle school rely on food from the curbside pantry, and will soon open one for the high school. "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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