BV has hunger problems, but they aren’t worse than the rest of Iowa

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

By ART CULLEN

Everyone in Storm Lake should be grateful to the Associated Press for spreading the word about hunger in The City Beautiful, situated in the most bountiful place on Earth. Reporter Scott McEtridge’s story moved across the wire last week and was featured prominently in newspapers and their websites. The result: A stream of donations from here and afar to the Upper Des Moines Food Pantry, which had been exhausted again.

For example, a couple from Wisconsin read about it and sent packages from amazon.com filled with toiletries for the working poor.

“That was really neat,” said UDM’s Melissa Keller. “We’ve been cleaned out the last two or three months.”

It’s not a surprise, necessarily, when UDM runs out of food or other household basics. It has been operating on the edge for decades as federal support wanes for the Great Society programs intended to end poverty in America.

It is a surprise when Storm Lake is painted as a place where “thousands of families” don’t know where their next meal is coming from, as the AP story suggested.

It’s not that bad, from my perspective as a fully sated, college-educated man born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The data for Buena Vista County would tend to back me up: Iowa State University Extension reports that last spring about 2,030 people — or 10% of the county’s Census population — is food insecure. That compares to a statewide average of 12.6%. The Buena Vista County poverty rate was 12.1%, the state average was 12.6%. (If, in fact, the county’s population is larger than 20,000, as the 2010 Census reported, then the percentages of food insecurity and poverty would be even lower. The county’s population probably is closer to 25,000 than 20,000.)

We have a housing problem but not necessarily a homelessness problem.

Likewise, we have food insecurity in certain pockets of the community (the elderly, single mothers with children working part-time jobs, undocumented unskilled working immigrants not eligible for government programs, those who simply cannot manage their own lives).

But we do not necessarily have widespread hunger as you might experience in Harlan County, Ky., or even some southern Iowa counties.

Keller respectfully disagrees with me. She is in the trenches. She sees what I don’t see. And she says Storm Lake does have a persistent and widespread problem with food insecurity.

She points out that a Kiwanis mobile food pantry attracts 130-200 people per month. Other food pantries, however, sometimes go lacking for consumers and have been discontinued. Keller thinks that those problems are from lack of awareness among the needy. They know where UDM is. It has been here for generations. They might not know about the one that was parked in front of the school administration building.

Supt. Carl Turner deserves credit for shifting pantry efforts into the middle school, where he knows that the food will make it back to needy homes. That outreach feeds about 60 families. A new pantry is opening at the high school that will be available at all times, an effort that came out of the BV County Hunger Dialogues that started last year.

And this is where the AP story is a credit to Storm Lake:

“Storm Lake has responded strongly with a large, mostly volunteer effort to hand out free food — eggs, cereal, vegetables, juice — at a half-dozen pantries, along a city street and in an empty building on the edge of town,” McFetridge reported.

That’s certainly true.

If someone were hungry in Storm Lake and knew where to go, he would be fed.

When a new person comes to town Upper Des Moines sets them up with a two-week supply. It helps when they have just landed a job at Tyson. But they have to make rent and utility deposits, and pay for moving, and by the end of a couple weeks here there is no money for food.

“I see it every day,” Keller said.

She said several Cubans from Miami are moving into Storm Lake. Hundreds have arrived. She sees newcomers all the time.

“A lot of these people come in and say they don’t need this help after a month,” Keller said.

As with housing, Storm Lake has unique challenges with food insecurity that other rural communities don’t have. We have a high transient population, and a large contingent of immigrants who might not be eligible for government assistance or, if eligible, don’t understand what sort of help is available outside of food pantries. Some folks just can’t budget their income well enough and run out of food near the end of the month. The elderly are reluctant to ask for help, even if they are malnourished.

But I don’t think the problem here is worse than in Fort Dodge or Sioux City. It’s probably not as bad as Webster City or Waterloo.

We do have our problems.

The good news is that we are aware of it and trying to help in many ways.

And, that people work their way out of chronic poverty by moving from Miami or Los Angeles to Storm Lake.

And that Storm Lake remains just about the best place in the world to live, if you can’t afford Maui.