Saturday, November 19, 2022

Groups seeking more democracy and better service for the poor from rural electric co-ops in the Southeast rate them

EnergyDemocracy map, adapted by The Rural Blog
Alabama's rural electric cooperatives did the worst on a scorecard issued this week by citizens' groups in the region that want the member-owned utilities to be more democratic and give more help to members who are poor or want the co-ops to become more environmentally conscious.

The groups hope the year-long study, funded largely by the groups themselves, becomes a model for other regions, said Rory McIlmoil of Appalachian Voices, a leading group in the coalition. Similar efforts have been made in Minnesota and Montana, he said.

Many Southeast cooperatives don't make their bylaws publicly available or allow members to attend or speak at meetings of their boards of directors, who are elected by the co-ops' member-owners. "There's a lack of transparent and independent governance," Karan Pol of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a Georgia-based group, said in the webinar announcing the results.

Graphic from Appalachian Voices and EnergyDemocracy; to enlarge, click on it.
A third of the cooperatives in Alabama don't make their bylaws publicly available, and the state's co-ops have the highest fixed fees, which burden the poor, said Jackson Tolbert of Energy Alabama.

Catherine Robinson of One Voice Mississippi, the state that ranked second lowest, said many co-ops don’t follow the recommendations of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for fair and democratic elections.

Kathy Curtis of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a cooperative member-owner, said she was unaware that member-owners have a voice in the co-op until she became involved in the project.

The groups based their ratings of individual cooperatives on information gathered from co-op websites, bylaws, conversations with co-op staff and the co-ops' tax returns, which are public because they are nonprofits. Some did not cooperate with the survey, and a lack of information gave them a score of zero, but the groups are still accepting information and will revise the published results accordingly, McIlmoil said.

The groups noted some bright spots, such as Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, which made "significant reforms" after member-owners organized, said Bri Knisley, Tennessee manager for Appalachian Voices. She said they have "full engagement," with public-comment periods at meetings that have publicly posted agendas.
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association map; click to enlarge

Friday, November 18, 2022

A column for deer season: Lessons learned from hunting

Chris Hardie takes a sip from his grandfather’s Thermos.
Hunting season is upon us. For some, it's time to fill the freezer with venison. For many hunters, it's also a time for reflection. "Life is measured by the passage of time and the season of deer hunting gives me plenty of moments to reflect on past memories," writes Chris Hardie for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

"This is my 47th year of gun deer hunting," Hardie writes, "and there is no place I’d rather be on the opening morning than sitting in the woods with my back against a tree. I’m carrying on a tradition started by my grandfather and carried on by my father."

Hardie misses his father and grandpa as friends and hunting partners, "but I feel their presence in the silence of the woods and learned hunting from both of them. . . . Grandpa had a fantastic hunting spot that overlooked an open valley between the woods where deer always crossed. . . . Dad taught me patience – sitting in a good spot and waiting for the deer to come could be very productive. But it took me a few years to learn that lesson, as I would easily get cold or bored as a teenager."

Grandpa had "an old butter knife that he jabbed into a punky log on his deer stand. He’d pull that knife out from the log, wipe it on his pants and butter up the lefse," a soft Norwegian flatbread. Years after his grandpa's death, Hardie found that old knife on the forest floor. "I still have the knife, as well as the Thermos that Grandpa used and one of his old flannel shirts. I wear the shirt the day before the hunting opener and carry the Thermos into the woods every year."

Hardie concludes, "Last year I had the good fortune of harvesting a big buck. Whether I pull the trigger this year is really not that important to me anymore," Hardie shares. "It’s a time of solitude and reflection. . . .Hunting has helped teach me some humility, the virtue of patience and a deep appreciation for creation, bundled with the value of tradition and family. And I still have some lessons to learn."

Editor who backed him says Trump's remarks confuse his voters, but naming of special counsel could help them stick

Gary Abernathy on "PBS NewsHour" Friday
One of the few newspaper editors who endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016 says Trump proved this week that even his base voters can no longer trust him. But with Trump now the target of a Justice Department special counsel, Gary Abernathy wonders if that challenge might redound to his benefit.

Abernathy, now retired but still living in southern Ohio, wrote in The Washington Post that part of Trump's base sticks with him because, as comedian Dave Chappelle said on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," he is "an honest liar." Abernathy said Chappelle meant that "Trump’s appeal was admitting to the 'commoners' that their suspicions about how the rich play the system were true. 'We’re doing everything that you think we are doing,' he paraphrased Trump as acknowledging, like an insider sharing trade secrets with the masses."

But recently, "Trump seems to be turning his gifts for gaming the system against his allies — something that’s beginning to dawn on his voters," Abernathy wrote, citing Trump's remarks about potential rivals, Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia while taking credit for their elections. "Trump voters are understandably confused. . . . If Trump will turn on his proteges, his followers are realizing, he’ll turn on any of his acolytes. Even his base can’t trust him now. The separation is happening fast. The divorce will follow."

Those words were published Wednesday. On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to pick up the investigations of Trump, and Abernathy was asked on "PBS NewsHour" if Trump should keep running for president if he is charged with a crime. "I don't know," he said, "but if there's a way to bring Trump's base back to him just at a moment when it seem like maybe they have a reason to separate, this is the type of thing that seems to do just that."

Asked if Republicans will stand by Trump as as the probe moves forward, Abernathy said, "I don't think Republican leaders will coalesce so much behind him. . . . It just seems like anytime Trump comes under attack, the base just wraps itself around him again, like a wall of protection."

Labor Dept. accuses big meatpacking sanitation firm of illegally employing children as overnight workers

Worker using a high-powered hose to clean
meatpacking equipment. (Labor Department photo)

A Labor Department investigation found that “One of the largest food safety companies in the United States illegally employed more than two dozen children in at least three meatpacking plants, several of whom suffered chemical burns from the corrosive cleaners they were required to use,” reports Remy Tumin of The New York Times.

The department said at least 31 children aged 13 to 17 were employed as overnight meatpacking cleaning staff by Packers Sanitation Services “in hazardous occupations. The jobs performed by children included cleaning dangerous powered equipment during overnight shifts."

Tumin reports, "Their jobs included cleaning kill floors, meat- and bone-cutting saws, grinding machines and electric knives, according to court documents. The mix of boys and girls were not fluent English speakers and were interviewed mostly in Spanish."

Packers Sanitation Services is based in Kieler, Wis., and contracts with at least 700 facilities and employee over 17,000 people nationwide, its website says.

The department got an injunction from a federal judge in Nebraska requiring the company to stop “employing oppressive child labor” and to comply with the Labor Department investigation.

The company says it has cooperated, and denies any child-labor violations. It “has an absolute company-wide prohibition against the employment of anyone under the age of 18 and zero tolerance for any violation of that policy — period,” it said in a statement.

Rural America is growing older faster than urban America; one in five rural Americans is older than 65, USDA says

"For the first time, more than one in five rural Americans is over the age of 65," reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming, citing the latest annual Rural America at a Glance report from the Department of Agriculture. "Rural America is aging more rapidly than the rest of the country, and the rural workforce is shrinking in number but becoming more racially diverse."

For generations, rural populations “tended to be older than urbanites because of the long-standing pattern of young people moving to the city to look for jobs and older people retiring to the country, and the gap widened in recent years, when the metro population grew and rural areas held steady or declined," Abbott notes.

“The aging of the baby-boom generation … will continue to contribute to the loss of working-age adults through the end of this decade,” Abbott writes, citing the report. "Some 46.1 million people, or 14% of the U.S. population, lived in rural counties in 2021, spread across 72% of the nation’s land mass. . . . In 2021, people 65 years and older made up over 20% of the nonmetro population for the first time, compared to 16% of the metro population."

As rural areas have aged, they have also diversified. "Rural areas have become more diverse economically, with more workers in health care, hospitality and other service industries," reports Abbott. "Since 2001, employment has declined in agriculture, retail and manufacturing. The number of government jobs was stable. Increased productivity was a major factor in the loss of agriculture and manufacturing jobs."

Removal of Klamath River dams closer to being a reality

Klamath Falls Herald & News map, adapted by The Rural Blog
After 15 years of planning, four Klamath River dams in California and Oregon have been approved for removal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in the nation's largest dam removal project.

"Following formal acceptance of the license transfer by the states and the Klamath River Renewal Corp., parties led by the KRRC will begin pre-construction steps in 2023 to lay the groundwork to complete removal of the dams," reports Lee Juillerat of the Herald & News in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Native American tribes "argued that the river’s natural flows must be restored to improve the health of species, including salmon, steelhead and lamprey, as well as to address environmental impacts like toxic blue-green algae blooms," reports Jennifer Yachnin of Energy & Environment News.

Native American tribal secretary Roberta Frost told Juillerat “These dams have kept the Klamath Tribes from one of our traditional foods, c’iyaals (salmon), for over a hundred years. The Klamath Tribes once relied upon thousands of pounds of c’iyaals from upper basin rivers for not just subsistence but for good health. The return of these fish will lead directly to both improved mental and physical health among our people.”

The opposing view was voiced by the Klamath Water Users Association, which uses reservoir water to irrigate farmlands in Klamath, Siskiyou and Modoc counties in California. It said, "We are disillusioned, but not so much by the fact that the dams will be removed. . . We have kept our commitment to stay out of the way of parties that prioritize dam removal. Rather, we are disillusioned and disappointed that so many parties have turned their backs on the Klamath Basin agricultural community, and failed to honor reciprocal commitments made to producers in 2016. . . parties to the Amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement failed to keep commitments to negotiate in good faith to put in place a new water agreement."

Election results slow the election-denier movement, giving common sense some traction; Arizona the prime example

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs' win in the Arizona governor's race over 2020 election denier Kari Lake was good news for voting rights activists and election officials from the biggest states to the smallest localities. Had Lake won, she promised to further "dismantle" voting processes. "The recent election was very bad for the election denier movement, and [Hobbs] completed the bad news," write Brookings Institution senior fellows Elaine Kamarck and Norman Eisen. "Arizona is the state where deniers searched for bamboo fibers in ballots that had supposedly been dropped into Phoenix by the Chinese. It is also the state where a non-governmental, privately funded recount ended up finding even more votes for Joe Biden."

A review of candidate revealed "341 candidates running on a platform of election denial," they write. "All in all, the statistics for election deniers are far worse when it comes to swing states. Almost all of the successes were in red or deep-red states. In purple places, including Michigan and Wisconsin, (not to mention blue ones) the election deniers running for statewide office were wiped out, with the sole remaining undetermined attorney general race in Arizona." It also helped that elections around the nation ran smoothly, as The New York Times reports.

When races are tighter, tensions run deeper and common sense and cool heads are needed, so election officials can do their jobs without interference, Kamarck and Eisen write: "Not all election deniers are equal. The statewide offices, and secondarily, the state legislators, have more power to affect election administration than do members of Congress. And the prospect of election deniers in office is much more dangerous in swing states. . . which is why the election denier movement, while not limited to swing states, had its greatest appeal among Trump’s followers in states where the 2020 presidential election was close. Following his loss in the 2020 election, Donald Trump fought hard to create doubts about the vote in an effort to affect the choice of electors and the Congress—which is why passage of the Electoral Count Act is so important." Parts of the 1887 law laying out the process for Congress to count electoral votes are vague, and a revision is pending in the Senate.

FDA gives green light to lab-grown chicken; USDA is next

Photo by Focused on You, Unsplash
Chicken meat created in a laboratory is pecking its way through approval hurdles. The Food and Drug Administration says it has completed a pre-market review of a California company's product "and had no unresolved questions about its safety for humans to eat," reports Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal. "The lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods must still get approvals from the Agriculture Department, which oversees the meat industry, before it can be sold in the U.S."

Bruce Friedrich, president of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on expanding plant-based and cultivated meat, said, “Cultivated meat will soon be available to consumers in the U.S. who desire their favorite foods made more sustainably, with production requiring a fraction of the land and water of conventional meat when produced at scale.”

“The FDA’s statement is very significant and is a foundational step in the regulatory process,” the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood Innovation said. “We expect regulatory green lights for other meat, poultry and seafood companies in the future.”

Cultivated meat usually begins with copying stem cells taken from a live animal. Uma Valeti, chief executive of Upside Foods, described cultivated meat cells as "like a starter dough." After being grown for about three weeks, cells are harvested and shaped into forms familiar to consumers, such as a chicken breast.

The approval comes at a time when "The livestock industry has come under increased environmental scrutiny, since cattle are a big source of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas," writes Peterson. "Proponents of the cultivated meat industry, who hope to overhaul a meat production system that relies on using much of the world’s cropland to feed animals, cheered the FDA action. . . . The industry still faces hurdles in scaling up production of lab grown meat and making it competitive in price compared with traditional meat."

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Cop in charge at Uvalde quits after CNN reveals he knew 8 or 9 kids needed saving, and after re-election to county post

Top half of the twice-weekly's latest front page; click on it to enlarge
The acting police chief during the elementary-school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, "will no longer serve on the force, following release of a phone call showing he knew that 'eight to nine' victims were still alive inside two interconnected classrooms" at Robb Elementary School, Publisher Craig Garnett reports for the Uvalde Leader-News. Mayor Don McLaughlin told Garnett that Lt. Mariano Pargas "will be gone by this week, whether he chooses to retire or he's fired."

“If we’d had those videos that he (CNN reporter Shimon Prokupecz) showed on Pargas, then we would have done something two months ago,” McLaughin told Garnett. The Associated Press reports that Pargas left the agency "voluntarily but it was not immediately clear whether he retired or resigned, according to city spokeswoman Gina Eisenberg."

Pargas is a member of the Uvalde County Commissioner's Court but was absent Wednesday when "six community members called for Pargas to resign the post he was re-elected to on Nov. 8," Julye Keeble reports for the Leader-News. Two people who lost relatives in the May 24 shootings "expressed disappointment that Pargas did not attend the meeting and called on him to resign," Keeble reports. "Diana Olvedo-Karau, one of three write-in candidates against Pargas in the general election, which he won with slightly over 45 percent of the fewer than 1,300 votes cast, said she does not dispute the election results but she is disappointed in the low voter turnout."

"Olvedo-Karau implored commissioners to remove Pargas from office," Keeble reports. "They do not have the authority to remove a sitting commissioner. . . . She said she is convinced of his failure to act at Robb Elementary School on May 24, where 19 students and two teachers died after law enforcement waited 77 minutes to breach the adjoining classrooms where survivors waited."

AP reports, "In the months after the shooting, state officials have focused blame on the school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, saying he made “terrible decisions” as the on-scene commander not to confront the gunman sooner. Arredondo was fired in August but has said he didn’t consider himself the person in charge and assumed someone else had taken control of the police response that eventually swelled to nearly 400 officers." The Leader-News' main headline Wednesday was "Pargas knew children needed saving."

News-media roundup: 29 states are fact-check 'deserts'; Gannett planning third round of personnel cuts this year

Duke Reporters Lab map, adapted by The Rural Blog; click to enlarge
"Amid the political lies and misinformation that spread across the country throughout the 2022 midterm elections, statements by candidates in 29 states rarely faced the scrutiny of independent fact-checkers" because there weren't any, report Erica Ryan, Mark Stencel and Belen Bricchi of Duke Reporters Lab. They identified "46 locally focused fact-checking projects during this year’s campaign in 21 states." In the other 29, "residents may encounter occasional one-off fact-checks from their state’s media outlets."

"Of the outlets that generated fact-checks at the state and local level this year, more than half are local television stations," the researchers report. "That’s a change over the past two decades, when newspapers and their websites were the primary outlets for local fact-checks. Almost all local fact-checking projects are run by media outlets, while several are based at universities or nonprofit organizations."

Gannett Co., America's leading newspaper publisher, will lay off 200 more newsroom employees, about 6 percent of its news workforce, it said Thursday. Those affected will be told Dec. 1 and 2.

The cuts are "the company’s third move to slash costs in the last six months," notes Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute. "After posting a big loss in the second quarter, Gannett laid off more than 400 employees and said it was leaving 400 more open positions vacant. Then in October it imposed a week’s unpaid mandatory leave, suspended contributions to 401(k) plans and asked employees to consider a voluntary separation offer. Those actions were all company-wide. Thursday’s was directed just to the news division."

As it has cut payrolls, Gannett has also been selling smaller newspapers, primarily to Cherry Road Media. Its Plains regional editor said in August that such markets may be better served by other owners, and Gannett is concentrating on preserving the quality of its top for papers. It has 200.

Another seafood-supply monitor turns thumbs down on Maine lobster, citing the industry's threat to right whales

Famous for lobster and summertime whale watching, Maine is struggling to balance the needs of the lobster industry alongside mounting pressure from environmental groups who are trying to "save a shrinking whale species that scientists say is threatened by the ropes lobstermen use to haul traps from the ocean floor," reports Jon Kamp of The Wall Street Journal. "The complex battle involves a federal agency that has a mandate to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, a lobster industry that disagrees its fishing gear poses a risk, and environmental groups that say the federal government’s whale-protection efforts have fallen short."

Wednesday, the Marine Stewardship Council revoked its "recognizable blue label" for Maine lobster, "a blow to a business already feeling an economic pinch amid low lobster prices, high fuel costs and questions about its environmental practices," reports Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post. "Retailers across the United States" use the council "to determine whether a fishery is well managed and that it does not harm other species or ocean habitats. The announcement comes just a month after another sustainability guide, Seafood Watchcautioned against buying lobster caught in either American or Canadian waters. . . . Only an estimated 340" right whales remain in the North Atlantic, but "Evidence is scant that lobstering is driving the endangered whale’s numbers down, say both Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the state."

“This is not a slap on the wrist,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said of the Seafood Watch assessment. “They are literally trying to put these people out of business.”

Steve Train, a lobsterman based on Long Island, Maine, told Grandoni, “This is neighbors in small communities, on islands and peninsulas that have done everything they can to harvest this resource in a responsible manner that allowed the next generation and the next generation and the next generation to have that same job.” 

Kamp writes, "In July, a federal judge sided with environmental groups in a lawsuit in which the groups argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s latest efforts to protect the whales from entanglements didn’t go far enough. The judge, James Boasberg, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is expected to rule soon on a path forward."

The lobster industry is pushing back with their own case before the same judge, arguing that the science is "overstated" and stricter regulations would harm livelihoods: “We’re basically fighting for our lives,” said Richard Larrabee Jr., a 46-year-old lobsterman in Stonington, Maine’s biggest lobster port, who supports a family of five.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division "is already exploring ways to beef up the whales’ protection from fishing lines and other hazards," Kamp writes.

Western Mass. town is getting its 7th cannabis dispensary, so a Boston Globe reporter smokes through 'em all

Great Barrington, Massachusetts, population 7,000, is about to open its seventh marijuana dispensary. Why? Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker spent a day "smoking his way through town" to answer the question, "How did this happen?"

Theory Wellness was Baker's first stop. "The lot at Theory was packed with plates from New York and Connecticut, each just down the road from this southwest corner of Massachusetts," Baker writes. "Neither neighbor has recreational stores (yet), and that is the central plot line here — a geographic opportunity, coupled with voters who have resisted restrictions and essentially said, 'Let ‘em duke it out,' that has turned this small town into the pot capital of America."

Illustration by Greg Klee, Adobe Stock
There are other stops on the main federal highway in the Berkshires: "All of them are on a single road, Route 7, though there are calls (namely from me) to change its name to Route 420," Baker writes. After his stop at Theory where the budtender "rattled on for a few moments about the strand’s progeny like a stanky sommelier," Baker stopped into The Pass where joints were "actually called joints."

Next up, a visit to Rebelle, "the third recreational dispensary to open. I don’t really remember much from that, and soon my driver parked the car downtown as it was decided I should just walk to the next three alone. Which was cool. Totally cool. All good. Because Great Barrington is like super cute," Baker writes. Another shop, Farnsworth, "is owned by three siblings who are descendants of Philo Farnsworth, the 20th-century inventor who did pioneering work in the development of radio and television."

Great Barrington
(Wikipedia map)
Finally, after all the shopping and smoking and "trying to explain the point of my pointless excursion, which in that moment could be summarized with a single word: Why? Why did this cute little town allow this to happen?" Baker asks/ "Maybe the whole point is to suck up as much money as they can before New York and Connecticut open their dispensaries and a huge chunk of that cash disappears."

Baker goes on, "As I was now proving, too much weed can make you anxious and depressed, and I was at my saddest as I walked back across town to the most ridiculous sight: an actual castle with an oversized 'Dispensary' sign on the lawn. . . and I happily resisted an employee who invited me to sit on a throne, next to a suit of armor, and take a selfie."

On Rural Health Day, a fresh report and a look at some of the people working to build healthier rural communities

Today is National Rural Health Day, complete with a presidential proclamation and a fresh National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Community Strategies Group of The Aspen Institute is using the observance as an opportunity to remind us of people and organizations working for healthier rural communities.

"We know health is a central component of thriving, prosperous communities and Native nations across the rural United States, and there’s more to it than just health care," CSG says. "Whether our towns can recover from a storm, have clean water, are places where residents feel informed and connected, and the local economy works for everyone — all of this impacts our opportunity to be healthy. . . . This means we all play a role in creating opportunities for health — in rural places and across the country."

CSG notes that County Health Rankings & Roadmaps at the University of Wisconsin recently held a webinar to show how CSG's Thrive Rural Health Framework can help organizations and communities identify social and economic assets, implement strategies, and measure progress to advance rural prosperity, health, and well-being. UW also offers Rural Public Health and Health Care: A Scan of Field Practice and Trends, which asks: What are the potential pathways of influence for public health and health care to foster more prosperous, equitable, and sustainable communities across rural America?

"Across America, many rural and tribal communities are finding inspiring solutions to improve health and wellbeing for all," CSG says, noting Rural Health and Wellbeing in America, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation presentation about "key resources, research, and emerging insights into the many factors that shape rural opportunity, health, and equity." CSG also notes its Rural Development Hubs.
"rural and regional intermediary organizations at the heart of positive community and economic development practice," with "the ability to unlock improvements in health outcomes."

CSG also notes Reproductive Healthcare: An Intersectional Component of Healthy Rural Communities, a presentation by UW's Marjory Givens on "evidence-informed solutions to the barriers to opportunity women and families continue to face in communities nationwide — particularly in lower-income rural and urban areas."

Native Americans remained largely Democratic in election, but need the party's attention to get them to turn out

African American Research Collaborative poll
"Native Americans remained solidly Democratic in their voting preferences in 2022, though slightly lower than we observed in 2020," write a Brookings Institution fellow and writer. Gabriel R. Sanchez and Raymond Foxworth cite a 2022 midterm voter election poll conducted by the African American Research Collaborative: "In House races across the country, Native Americans supported Democratic candidates at 56% relative to 40% of Native Americans who reported voting for Republicans. . . . This modest shift in voting behavior is consistent with the historic movement away from the incumbent party in off-year elections and was not large enough to help a red wave materialize in 2022."

Some Native American votes can be explained by the off-year election trends and the poll's detail that Native American voting followed party lines; however, it also represents Native American support for  President Biden. "Regarding presidential approval, although Native American voters approve of the job President Biden is doing at a higher rate than white voters (+11%), they were more likely to disapprove than voters from other communities of color—47% among Native American voters," Sanchez and Foxworth report.

The poll shows that parties did not actively engage with Native American voters when compared to 2018 activity and, "reveals that Native Americans were less likely to be contacted by a candidate, party, or civic organization than other communities of color, " they write. "Although this is low for all of these groups considering that they are most likely to be on contact lists for candidates and parties, it is a reminder that without higher investment in tribal communities, we will not see this sub-group of the larger electorate turn out and engage in federal elections at high rates."

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Views of mental health among younger rural residents are similar to urban counterparts; both are more accepting

Photo by Nathan Dumlao, Unsplashed
Studies have found that rural populations place more stigma on mental health and its care than their urban counterparts, but those attitudes seem to be changing with younger generations, reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder: "New research from the Rural Health Equity Research Centers at East Tennessee State University finds that rural residents are less likely to have negative attitudes toward those with mental health illnesses than previously thought. Prior studies had found that there was more of a stigma around mental illness in rural communities. Younger people in rural communities are becoming more open and accepting of mental health diagnosis and treatment," 

According to researchers Kate Beatty and Michel Meit, "Previous studies found that perceived prejudice against rural residents with mental health concerns not only reduced treatment but that rural residents felt that treatment wouldn’t work," Carey writes.

When Betty and Meit interviewed more than 2,000 rural and urban residents, the responses were revealing: "Rural respondents did not differ significantly from urban respondents when it came to negative stereotypes toward mental illness," Carey writes. “Once you control for age and race, there’s no more stigma about mental illness” in rural communities than in urban ones, Meit told Carey. "The study found that rural residents between the ages of 18 and 29 had the lowest scores on negative stereotypes, while respondents 60 and older had the highest," Carey reports.

The study suggests that the national conversation about the importance of mental-health care is reaching rural Americans through outreach and even pop culture, Carey writes: "Recently, celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Selena Gomez, and Michael Phelps have spoken out about their struggles with mental health. These cultural touchstones for younger populations – both rural and urban — may be changing the way people view mental illness."

“One powerful destigmatizing strategy is awareness,” Beatty told Carey. “The more people talk about and normalize mental illness the less stigmatized folks will be.”

New school-masking research helps define best practices

(Photo by Kelly Sikkema, Unsplashed)
School masking policies remain topics of tension, but studies like a new one in the New England Journal of Medicine may help inform the debate, reports Donna St. George of The Washington Post: "Public schools that kept universal masking requirements in place last year had significantly fewer coronavirus cases than their counterparts that lifted mandates as state policies changed. . . This new study from Boston and Chelsa, Mass., has shed some light on what might work as the best protection."

"The study, which followed schools in the Boston region during the 2021-22 academic year, found that the end of mask requirements was associated with an additional 45 coronavirus cases per 1,000 students and staff members — or nearly 12,000 cases during a 15-week period from March to June. . . The findings support on-ramps and off-ramps for mask mandates," St. George writes.

The study by researchers from Harvard University, Boston University and the Boston Public Health Commission found that masking was just one strategy for avoiding virus transmission. "Universal masking helped most when the levels of virus were highest, suggesting that the safety measure is most useful just before or throughout periods of high transmission," St. George reports.

Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on health issues, told St. George the study demonstrated a “sizable” effect of universal masking — a finding that could be useful to efforts to control a future coronavirus variant or another infectious disease: “This is a very low-cost, highly effective intervention.”

When it comes to avoiding RSV, influenza, and Covid-19, Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist and infectious-disease transmission modeler at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told St. George, “Masking is one of the rare tools that can combat all of these.”

It's only November, but flu strains and RSV are already busy

Heading into the holiday season, it's good to remember that this year's flu season is already in full swing with the "triple threat" of influenza, Covid-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV arrived early this year, which makes its cycle harder to predict, writes Katelyn Jetelina in her Your Local Epidemiologist newsletter: "Historically, the RSV season lasts five months. It will be interesting to see how the holidays impact RSV patterns. Typically RSV peaks in January, but because it has arrived so early, we are in new viral dynamic territory." The disease poses the greatest threat to infants and seniors.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map

This year's dominant flu strain is potent, but there have been some early and limited but encouraging signs, Jetelina reports: "There is good news from the Southern Hemisphere among countries that just concluded their flu season. Chile, for example, found the flu vaccine is a good match for the current strain. They are reporting a 49% efficacy rate," Jetelina reports, "But only 28% of Americans are vaccinated against the flu. This is almost 10 percentage points lower than pre-pandemic rates, which is frustrating."

American hospital systems have already been stressed by Covid-19 and early RSV. Jetelina reminds her readers that people can get infected with more than one virus at a time and taking precautions like staying home when sick and updating vaccinations can keep you and others out of the hospital.

As federal government considers first big Amtrak expansions in decades, southern Montana has a plan

An Amtrak trains passes Whitefish Mountain in northern
Montana. (Photo by Heath Korvolo, Getty Images)

In 1979, Congress enacted major cuts for Amtrak, which left southern Montana with no passenger train service. "More than a dozen Montana counties have banded together in an effort to bring Amtrak service back to the southern part of the state, hoping that the year-old federal infrastructure law will finally help them restore a train line lost decades ago," reports Daniel C. Vock of Route Fifty. "The one-of-a-kind effort might be unique to Montana, but it underscores the stakes for cities and local governments as the federal government considers major expansions to passenger rail service for the first time in decades."

“There’s a strong economic case to be made for passenger rail because trains are economic lifelines. They’re transportation lifelines,” Jason Stuart, vice chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, told Vock. “All these communities in this part of the world here on the northern Plains are all in the same situation: We’re so far distant from anything.”

Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County commissioner who lives more than 500 miles west of Stuart, is chair of the Big Sky authority. He told Vock, "Restoring an old Amtrak route would also link the state’s major urban centers – Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula – while giving more options to rural communities and this provides transportation options to seniors, to veterans and to students."

Montana is almost as large as California and away from the Empire Builder route in its north, it has four options for travel: motorized vehicles, aurplanes, bicycles and horses. "Several cities have air service, but flights generally connect to out-of-state hubs making travel within Montana expensive and time-consuming. Montana’s landscape makes driving difficult, given the long distances between cities and treacherous winter weather. Montana regularly has one of the highest traffic fatality rates per mile driven of any state in the country," Vock reports.

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority map of Montana and its counties; for a larger version, click on it.

Down East Maine used tech solutions for seniors during pandemic; gets National Digital Navigator Corps grant

Sandra Zaia and great-granddaughter (NDEC photo)
Pandemic lockdowns left many rural seniors disconnected and isolated. In one part of Maine there was immediate help through technology: "A digital equity center in Down East Maine helped older residents learn how to use the internet to stay connected and informed," reports Carolyn Campbell of The Daily Yonder. "Now a national grant program will give them the chance to train more residents."

Susan Corbett, the founder of Maine’s National Digital Equity Center, said the center taught seniors how to connect via Zoom. "The instructors would use the phone to teach them how to turn on the computer saying, ‘Run your finger up the side of the tablet and press the button it on. The goal was to get the person to click on the Zoom link. When they did, you can imagine their pure joy when connecting for the first time and seeing the instructor,” Corbett told Campbell.

Down East Maine in red
(Wikipedia map, adapted)
Elaine Abbott, an economic development planner from Washington County, Maine, has been working with Corbett for broadband access for all. "Corbett, Abbott, and others have been working with the region’s Passamaquoddy tribal leaders, broadband consultants, state agencies, and regional boards to assess the region’s needs and develop a broadband coalition strategy providing access to all citizens of Maine, regardless of their ZIP code," writes Campbell.

Efforts of these rural leaders have paid off: "Last month the National Digital Inclusion Alliance named Maine’s National Digital Equity Center as one of 18 grant recipients from across the country to become part of the nation’s first National Digital Navigator Corps," Campbell reports. "In their press release, NDIA stated the grants will go toward hiring community-based digital navigators alongside programmatic and technical support to help thousands of residents gain much-needed access to the internet, devices, and digital-skills training."

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Heritage turkeys are alternatives to broad-breasted whites

Stephanie Lesnik holds a Narragansett turkey at her Field House
Farm in Connecticut. (Lancaster Farming photo by Art Petrosemolo)
The broad-breasted white turkey may be in short supply this Thanksgiving, forcing consumers to buy smaller birds, but those are not the only option. Heritage-breed turkeys could become a new tradition, writes Art Petrosemolo, a correspondent for Pennsylvania-based Lancaster Farming.

Stephanie Lesnik, who operates Field House Farm in south-central Connecticut, began raising heritage birds about 10 years ago. Lesnik told Petrosemolo she tried raising broad-breasted turkeys, but found them too large. She learned that heritage breeds like Narragansett and Bourbon Reds, native to New England, were easier to raise, and have better flavor. 

Lesnik's turkeys are raised primarily outdoors and are allowed to mate. "The flock’s natural breeding contrasts with artificial insemination, which is widely used in commercial turkeys because they are too bulky to mate effectively," Petrosemolo reports. "The birds are easy keepers and breed yearly, providing offspring that grow to maturity — 13 to 20 pounds — in 28 weeks."

Gregory Martin, a Penn State Extension poultry educator, told Petrosemolo that the taste of the heritage turkey might not be for everyone: "The number of families who eat a heritage turkey is pretty small. I think it really comes down to a preference for dark meat and a turkey with large legs as opposed to the broad-breasted varieties with lots of white meat that have dominated the market."

Lesnik has built a following for her turkeys, "a loyal group of extended family, friends and regular customers, some who drive in from surrounding states, to purchase a fresh, never frozen, turkey for their Thanksgiving or Christmas table," Petrosemolo writes. The American Poultry Association recognizes eight heritage turkey breeds — Beltsville Small White, Black, Bourbon Red, Bronze, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate and White Holland.

Rural areas keep rising in popularity as remote workers seek opportunities in more affordable communities

Continued remote-work options, paired with cost of living increases, have incentivized many pre-pandemic metropolitan dwellers to relocate to more rural areas. "Buyers who purchased homes in the year ended in June moved a median of 50 miles from their previous residences, according to the National Association of Realtors," reports Nicole Friedman of The Wall Street Journal. "That distance is the highest on record in annual data going back to 2005 and follows five straight years in which the median distance moved was constant at 15 miles."

"The moving distance likely soared because many employers solidified their in-office requirements, giving some remote workers the certainty to move farther from their offices, Jessica Lautz, NAR’s vice president of research," told Friedman.

"Stanton and Donna Zeff were hoping to move to Florida once Mr. Zeff retired, but due to Mr. Zeff's work becoming exclusively remote, they were able to move this past January. "They sold their home near Dallas in January and recently bought a four-bedroom house in Davenport, Fla., which includes a suite for Mr. Zeff’s mother, who will be moving with them," writes Friedman.

In contrast to the housing boom of the pandemic, recent increases in home interest loan rates and inflation have changed the real estate market. "Now that mortgage rates have more than doubled, home purchases have dwindled and buyers have focused more on affordability," Friedman reports.

'Only a flesh wound:' Plant-based meat's hot takeoff cools

Beyond Meat products at a grocery store in Mount Prospect,
Ill., in February. (Photo by Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press)
Eat your veggies; have a salad; five-a-day; pigs are friends, not food. Americans have heard the meta-mantra: eat less meat and more vegetables. In 2019, companies launched plant-based burgers in major grocery chains and sales were tremendous. "The promise of high-tech meat substitutes prompted a frenzy of celebrity investment and red-hot IPOs in 2019. The pandemic saw significant consumer curiosity and a stampede of newcomers in the category," reports Laura Reiley of The Washington Post.

Three years later, Americans have had time to go beyond the hype, review the 18 ingredients in the Beyond Burger compared to the one ingredient in the beef burger and decided (at least for now) that plant-based products aren't the default solution to their protein needs, Reiley reports: "Plant-based meat, heralded by many as the death knell to Big Meat, appears at this moment to have dealt only a flesh wound."

Reiley reports that Beyond Meat, "the Los Angeles-based purveyor of plant-based burgers, crumbles, nuggets and such saw its stock prices plunge nearly 80 percent from its peak, and last month the company announced it would lay off about 19 percent of its workforce. McDonald’s has tabled its idea to roll out the McPlant burger nationally."

Major meatpackers were nervous about plant-based meat, but it seems that for now Big Meat will get to stay on top of the main course of the food chain. Reiley gives five reasons plant-based meats are struggling for sales: price; fuzzy health benefits; too many players in the industry; restaurants are not buying in; and lack of versatility of plant-based products.

Reiley notes that despite the mounds of evidence evidence "about the ills of a meat-heavy diet for human health, for planetary health, for workers’ health and for the habitat of the planet’s animal species . . . global consumption of meat has more than doubled since 1990." But Big Meat's challenges will continue: "Hype is building with the likely introduction in the United States next year of cultivated meat, made from cell cultures from real animals that doesn’t necessitate slaughter. SofĂ­a De La Parra, an analyst at the investor network FAIRR Initiative, anticipates cultivated meat will reignite interest in plant-based products."

More guns in homes tied to higher suicide rate in rural areas; red-flag laws more popular than most gun control

(Daily Yonder chart by Sarah Melotte; data from CDC)
The presence of a gun in rural homes is a significant factor in the number of firearm suicide deaths reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "In 2020, the rural gun death rate was 28% higher than the urban rate. Nonmetropolitan counties reported 17.01 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to a rate of 13.19 in urban America."

Because suicide is often impulsive, the ready availability of a gun and its usually quick effect make it a likely choice for suicide. Michael Siegel of the Tufts University School of Medicine told Melotte: "Because we know that guns are the most lethal means for suicide, if a gun is available, a suicide attempt is likely to result in a death. Whereas, if there aren’t guns around, other methods that people might use to attempt suicide are not as lethal."

To combat suicide, experts have suggested implementing mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases and red-flag laws, which may have more success in rural states because so many rural residents already own guns. "The specifics of red-flag laws vary from state to state and may go by a variety of different names," Melotte reports. "They allow law enforcement or concerned family members to petition a court to remove firearms from individuals deemed to be a threat to themselves or others."

While gun rights are a hot-button subject, interventions like red-flag laws have broader support than most gun-control measures: “Other than the NRA," Siegel told Melotte, "there’s really nobody who says that people who are known to be a risk to themselves or other people should have access to a gun.”

Monday, November 14, 2022

Iowa GOP bars Cedar Rapids station from election-night event; news director suspects it's payback for fact-checks

This ad, designed to look like "Iowa News" coverage, also accused Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek of failing to prevent vandalism during a campus disturbance. The area wasn't in his primary jurisdiction, KCRG noted, giving it an F.
By Dave Busiek
Iowa Freedom of Information Council, via Substack

In what’s become a trend of Republicans stiff-arming mainstream media outlets, the Iowa Republican Party denied a Cedar Rapids TV station entrance into its election night party in Des Moines.

KCRG-TV is the ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids. It’s a fine news operation that provides quality coverage in eastern Iowa. On Monday, the day before the election, the station learned it had been denied credentials to the party’s election night event, where all major GOP candidates would appear.

According to KCRG story, an party spokesman claimed the room was at capacity and priority was given to Des Moines outlets. News director Adam Carros said outlets from outside Des Moines got in, and he cried foul. “This is an unprecedented action in my 20+ years in TV news, 17 of it in Iowa,” Carros said. “I cannot recall a single instance a political party has blocked a local TV or newspaper outlet from its election night event in Iowa.”

That makes two of us. In 40 years of TV news experience in Iowa, I’ve never heard of this happening, either. I imagine it won’t be the last time.

Carros suspects it’s payback for fact-check coverage the station did on political ads run by several Republican candidates. One of the stories criticized an ad from state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, son of state GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann. Carros says the party repeatedly criticized KCRG’s coverage and refused to take part in the station’s previews of legislative races. “I have every reason to believe this is political retribution for our fact checks and other reporting the party deemed unfavorable.”

What possible gains can be made by denying a station the right to cover what turned into a huge victory party for the Iowa GOP? Republicans now hold all Iowa seats in Congress, both houses of the Iowa legislature, and they swept to victory in every statewide office including governor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state and ag secretary. From Republicans’ perspective, what a great story to tell! Why not shout it as loud as possible through every media outlet imaginable?

With the race for Arizona governor too close to call, Iowa native Kari Lake – a former TV news anchor, for Pete’s sake – told reporters Wednesday she plans to win, and not only serve four years, but eight. With reporters standing around her, Lake said “I’m gonna be your worst freaking nightmare for eight years, and we will reform the media as well. We’re gonna make you guys into journalists again. So get ready. It’s going to be a fun eight years. I can’t wait.”

Let’s get something straight. Reporters are supposed to do tough stories on people in power. Threats from Kari Lake, or stiff-arming from Iowa Republicans, is not going to change that fact. After Tuesday night, everyone in power in Iowa is a Republican. It’s clear they want to intimidate and bully media outlets into becoming lap dogs. To write glowing stories only. But it is not going to happen, and they know that. Their main goal is to score political points with their base. The news media are easy targets.

Local TV news cannot turn into partisan outlets like Fox or MSNBC. It must continue to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway and do tough stories on those in power, regardless of party, regardless of complaints, and regardless of blacklisting.

In the end, KCRG grabbed a Des Moines station’s satellite feed of the Republican victory celebration, so viewers did not miss out. And in the next election cycle, Adam Carros and his team will continue to do fact checks on both Republican and Democratic candidates – with or without their cooperation.

Rural schools are especially short of teachers who can prepare students who want education beyond high school

The small town of Campo, Colo. (Photo by Camilla Forte, The Hechinger Report)
The need for rural teachers, especially those who can prepare students for post-secondary education, is dire. Some teachers who fit that bill are driving long distances to help them, reports Nichole Dobo of The Hechinger Report, which reports exclusively on innovation and inequality in education.

"Rural students tend to do well in elementary school, but something changes as they get older," Dobo writes. "These students are still less likely than their suburban and urban peers to successfully continue their education after high school . . . they need to prepare their students to thrive in an economy that demands more than a high school education." 

Traveling teachers like Robert Mitchell can help prepare students for careers. Debo caught up with Mitchell, who started making the four-hour drive to Campo, Colorado (home to 103 residents and 46 K-12 students), once a week for the past five years. "In Campo, where it seems like everyone in the school takes on multiple jobs, Mitchell fit right in, helping with college applications and talking to students about their futures," Dobo reports.

Recruitment for any teaching position is difficult for Campo schools. "One applicant from Boston dropped out of consideration for a job after the superintendent explained that a car, not a bike, would be needed to survive, as the closest Walmart is about an hour away," Nikki Johnson, the Campo superintendent, told Debo.

Rural areas do not have the access to hiring pools with STEM-educated graduates like those of urban schools, Dobo points out: "There hasn’t been a math teacher who is 'comfortable' teaching beyond Algebra I for nearly six years, Johnson said. . . . For the current school year, there were zero applications for Campo’s open math teacher job."

More than 9.3 million students go to public schools in rural areas, which can range from a corner in Ohio to the open spaces of Montana.