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Hunger on the Rise in Rural US despite Record Harvests


by Sue Schwendener 

Reuters, 19 December 2001

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,  20 December 2001

U.S. farmers this year harvested a record soybean crop and one of the largest corn crops in history, but the number of hungry Americans in rural areas continues to grow, according to public policy experts and food pantry supervisors. "We've seen this fall an increase in people who are coming to the food bank for the first time in three or four years,'' said Barb Prather, executive director of Northeast Iowa Food Bank, in Waterloo, Iowa. "We're also seeing an increase in seniors and in the number of people who are in crisis. A year ago, we were seeing about 24 to 30 people daily,'' she said. "Now we're seeing about 30 to 40 people per day.''

Exact crop production numbers for this year's harvest won't be available until January, but Iowa's farmers usually produce the largest corn and soybean crops in the country. But like many U.S. farm states, Iowa is not reaping the gains. In fact, national studies show poverty rates fell more slowly during the 1990s economic boom in U.S. rural areas than in cities, leaving nearly 1 in 10 rural households facing hunger.

According to a recent study by the University of Northern Iowa, 52 percent of Northeast Iowa Food Bank's clients have at least one child and 33 percent are employed. Fifty percent already accept federal food stamp aid.


"Six hundred counties, nearly one-quarter of all rural counties, have poverty rates that exceed 20 percent, and it's been that way for 20 years or more,'' said Doug O'Brien, policy director at America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief charity.

"Hunger in America has changed. But the policies meant to help people with hunger and poverty haven't really kept pace,'' O'Brien said. "Poor rural Americans are more likely to work than poor Americans in cities or suburbs. But we penalize people in the food stamp program: If they have a vehicle that is worth more than $4,650, they are no longer eligible for food stamps.''

In Montana, where agriculture, timber, and mining have traditionally been the leading industries, the state's food bank network served 140,000 people in the first six months of this year, said Peggy Grimes, executive director of Montana Food Bank in Missoula. The state's population is 1 million.

"We have been seeing an increase in the number of visits per person since early spring,'' she said. "What was once an emergency food program is now almost becoming a grocery store for the poor. More people are working but they're underemployed.''

Grimes noted that with few major in-state food processors, most of the state's freshly harvested food supplies were shipped away. Most of the Montana food bank's donations arrived from outside the state. "Our resources are tightening,'' she said. "But we recently opened a food processing center, run by inmates at a state prison, where we can vegetables, dry-pack some cereal products, and process confiscated wild game.''

In Oklahoma, which ranks fourth in the United States in total cattle production, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City serves an average 56,069 people each week at 225 locations.

Nine percent of the food bank's clients are children aged five or younger, and almost 8 percent are classified as elderly, according to a survey by the organization. The average annual household income in 2000 was $9,830, while Social Security was the main source of income for nearly 22 percent of the food bank clients.


While rural food bank directors and volunteers strive to feed increasing numbers, they have kept a worried eye on recent congressional debates on federal emergency food aid spending.

Last week, U.S. senators voted against expanding hunger relief programs if that would cut into spending for farm subsidies, defeating an amendment to spend an additional $1 billion a year on public nutrition programs like food stamps.

Senators were scheduled to vote on Wednesday on a third attempt by Majority Leader Tom Daschle to restrict debate on a five-year farm bill. If it passes, a compromise bill must then be worked out with the House before a final version can be submitted to the president.

Besides federal food aid spending, the farm bill will set U.S. policy on crop subsidies, trade issues, agricultural research, and farm conservation incentives.

Copyright 2001, Reuters. Reprinted for fair use only .

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