Small Iowa town a window into U.S. hunger problem

Scott McFetridge Associated Press

Storm Lake, Iowa — Storm Lake, Iowa, appears the picture of economic health, a place where jobs are plentiful, the unemployment rate hovers near 3 percent, busy shops fill century-old brick buildings and children ride bikes on tree-lined sidewalks that end in the glare of its namesake lake.

But there’s a growing problem in the northwest Iowa city of 11,000, 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. The issue persists even as national poverty rates have declined in the past year and prices for many food staples have dropped slightly.

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.

“You struggle to live one day at a time, to stretch the budget,” said Hermelinda Gonzalez, 41, who relies on food from a monthly drive-up pantry to feed her seven children despite her husband’s construction job.

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.

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.

While federal statistics show incomes among the poorest 10 percent of U.S. households increased 7.9 percent last year and the proportion of Americans in poverty dropped from 14.8 percent to 13.5 percent, small towns typically lag urban areas in job and income growth, especially in the Upper Midwest, said Gary Green, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who studies rural issues.

It’s especially hard for immigrants, he said, because the communities often lack a support network found in large cities, and if there’s an unexpected expense or reduction in work hours, there usually aren’t relatives nearby to help.

It all helps to explain why one pantry alone, Upper Des Moines Opportunity, provides food to about 3,200 people in Storm Lake and nearby communities.

“The shelves are as empty as I’ve ever seen it,” pantry worker Melissa Keller said.

Shirley Ann Peter is among those who struggle to make ends meet. Peter’s boyfriend provides for their four children, ages 6 months to 8 years, but after paying the $600 in monthly rent and other expenses, they must seek food from a charity pantry every week.

“A lot of time the kids cry about what they want and I can’t give it to them,” said Peter, 24.