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How can anyone be hungry in America?

By Ken Root

Editor’s note: Ken Root is enjoying a week with his family on the Mississippi River. He wrote this article a year ago while examining the building confrontation of food/nutrition versus farm programs in Congress.

I’m attending a major farm show in Iowa this week where the giant combines, tractors and trucks adorn every block and the air-conditioned technology tents beckon in thousands of visitors. This “farm city” is teeming with growers, managers and consultants studying every new piece of hardware and software and figuring out how they can apply it to be more productive and efficient.

Along with the glitz of the show, there is an effort to sensitize the agricultural community to the number of people who are “food insecure” in cities, small towns and rural areas. It was with some shock that I listened to Jean Kresse, president and CEO of the United Way of Story County. Her jurisdiction sits right in the middle of Iowa and includes Ames, the home of Iowa State University. Her message is that the churches and food bank can’t get enough food to serve the people who are showing up for free meals or food pantry items.

I asked how it could be that people are hungry in the middle of the most productive land in America? She is a caring charity organization professional but I wouldn’t put her over in the bleeding heart category. He message is complicated as each subgroup seems to have its own reason for coming up short on nutrition.

“We find that there are people who don’t have access to food due to lack of transportation,” she explained. “Their only grocery store is attached to a gasoline station and it doesn’t have what they need to eat a healthy diet.” She went on to explain that seniors on fixed income pay for their medications and other necessities first and they are out of money before they get to food. Compounding this are the shopping habits of those who have a small amount of money for food. “They buy mac and cheese rather than fresh vegetables,” was her answer. “They sacrifice nutrition for something that is cheap and filling.”

I’m still stunned about this as I grew up in a household with very meager cash income but we never went hungry and the nutritional value of our food was solid. I feel so removed from their world that I stand on the other side of the glass looking in and asking why people can’t prioritize or improvise to make sure they, and their children, get a balanced diet.

“Many people live below the poverty line and don’t have enough money to buy the food they need,” is Kresse’s answer. “We have a chart showing how much you have to spend to cover cost of living in our area and many single parents live below it.” I was amazed to learn that a parent with two children needs $3,930 per month to live in Story County, Iowa. That is $47,000 per year! There are many people who don’t make that much from full-time employment. The expense breakout shows that they need $576 per month for food. If food is only 10 percent of our income, then that parent would need to make over $69,000 to be at the average level for income relative to the price of food.

How about being innovative? We kept ourselves healthy and well fed with a garden. My mother planted rows of vegetables, too many tomatoes, and okra. We ate it fresh or canned for winter. It was a lot of work but the quality was good and the taste of most of it was tolerable. Where did that survival skill go? It appears that a frontier society had greater ability to secure food than an urban dweller who owns no property and has no assurance they will be in the same place for an extended period of time.

Kresse goes one step further: “We know there are people who need food assistance but won’t accept it.” She tells me of their efforts to get a cross section of people to accept the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or reduced prices for school lunch for their children. “They tell us others are worse off than they are so they can’t accept it.”

Many people in middle America are caring and charitable and have set up meals at churches or are rounding up food from restaurants and grocery stores to give to food pantries.

If you think the hunger issue is trivial or peripheral to production agriculture, keep in mind that 80 percent of the funding for pending farm legislation (80 billion dollars per year) is for food and nutrition programs. If they are cut, then urban legislators will see that farm programs get cut by a greater percentage.

I try to be a compassionate person. I don’t want a senior citizen or a child to go hungry. I thank my parents for their determination to feed me well in my formative years. I have fed myself and my family as an adult. Now I look at a country that has plenty of food, potential to grow more food and yet people who are malnourished. The more the problem unfolds, the less I understand it.

Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at

Date: 8/05/2013


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