by Madison Pitsch
SEWARD, Neb. — Picture this: you’re 7 years old again. You just finished the school week and you walked home. You’re hungry. You look in the cabinets and refrigerator, all empty. Your stomach is growling and all you can think about is where your next meal will come from. The last time you ate was school lunch on Friday; when is the next time you will eat?
Where did you picture yourself? A poor, urban community in a developing country?
How about rural Nebraska?
What you’re experiencing is food insecurity. 41.2 million people in the United States today are food insecure, according to the USDA. Food insecurity is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
In fact, 11 percent of children in Nebraska are food insecure. Food insecurity in an urban setting is likely, but even more hard-hit are the communities of rural Nebraska. According to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska’s top five exports in 2016 were soybeans, corn, beef and veal, feeds and fodders and processed grain products. Why can’t Nebraska, an agrarian giant, feed its children? Mike Shambaugh-Miller, a former professor and current boss of the non-profit organization Produce From The Heart, attributes rural food insecurity to lack of a living wage.
Living wage refers to the baseline amount of money needed to provide for basic living expenses. For example, living wage (per hour) in Douglas County, Nebraska, according to the Living Wage Calculator by MIT, is $10.93 for one adult. However, the more members of a family there are, the more money a family needs to bring in. A family with two working adults and two children needs to bring in at least $15.54 per hour. Many in Nebraska, especially rural communities, are not meeting these requirements.
“A lot of it has to do with jobs that aren’t paying a living wage. Individuals who have jobs that might get the equivalent of 30-35 hours a week don’t qualify for employee benefits,” Shambaugh-Miller said. “So the money they make is going to healthcare bills and other bills like this instead of going towards buying food.”
Food insecurity is largely income-driven. Rural areas are especially effect because of the loss of smaller farm entities and the decline of the farm economy employment market.
“The rural areas are getting fewer as farms become larger, single-entity operations and technology gives us the ability to do the jobs that dozens used to do before. We lose the farm economy employment market and individuals that have ability to move to urban areas for employment do,” Shambaugh-Miller said. “People left behind in the rural communities are, in most cases, less educated, less financially able to move away and have little money to spend on their living situation.”
Living at the poverty line means having to prioritize where income is spent. If you are receiving employee benefits, then healthcare, insurance and other living expenses need to be covered. Food is usually the last item on the checklist of things to pay for, says Deaconess Juanita Ebert of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Seward, Nebraska.
“16,998 people in Seward County are food insecure. 11.2 percent of all people in Seward county. 720 of those people are under the age of 18,” Ebert said. “People who come in (to the church food pantry) don’t live in town, but in the rural areas.” However, coming into Seward from surrounding areas means spending money on gas. Spending money on gas means more money that you have that cannot go towards covering insurance, healthcare or food. The domino effect remains at play.
Children and elderly are the demographics most affected by food insecurity. Overall in Nebraska, one in six children are food insecure, while one in four seniors are food insecure. However, these numbers change when moving the scope to rural communities. One in two seniors are food insecure and one in three or four children are food insecure.
Hunger presents a problem for childhood development, according to both Shambaugh-Miller and Ebert. The domino effect of hunger continues not only into cognitive and brain development, but also personal development as well.
“When children aren’t receiving enough or the right kind of food, their chances in life are not as good,” Ebert said. “They don’t do well at school because it’s hard to concentrate on an empty stomach or on food that is not nutritional. Not doing well will affect your successes at any job. It’s a domino effect that starts at home with meals.”
School performance isn’t the only thing effected by hunger. Brain development and basic, future life successes hang in the balance for these children.
“The big issue for children is delayed development and impacts on cognitive and brain development. Those two factors then not only affect their current health, but particularly the cognitive issues are going to follow them their entire life,” Shambaugh-Miller said. “They’re going to have problems learning and retaining information, and that will translate into problems later in life. They will be less successful, whether that’s pursuing higher education or learning to hold a technically higher job.”
And even still, children who grow up food insecure are more likely to be homeless, struggle with interpersonal relationships and more.
“It’s all linked together that the highest number of children that are food challenged are those that are homeless or bouncing from homes. Then those are the ones we see that have lower test scores in school, increased issues with interpersonal relationship issues with family and peers,” Shambaugh-Miller said. “Hunger impacts a kid across the spectrum.”
There are steps currently being taken in Nebraska to combat hunger. Food pantries, such as Christ Cupboard at St. John’s in Seward, mobile food banks, backpack programs, student market programs and free and reduced lunches are all offered in an effort to provide the hungry with food.
St. John’s runs a client choice food pantry. Client choice means that families can come in and pick out specific food items based on family size and preferences. Ebert gave the example of pears versus peaches. If your family doesn’t like pears, and you were just handed a can of pears, you wouldn’t be likely to use them. Giving clients a choice not only prevents food waste, but also returns dignity to the shopper with the ability of choice. Coming into the food pantry, asking for help— it isn’t always easy for those who need it.
“For some, it is difficult to come in for the first time. I think there are people we never see because there is a lot of pride. Regulars, you don’t see that so much,” Ebert said.
This sense of pride and not asking directly for help also trickles down into the children’s age range too.
“Kids won’t go to the free breakfasts and won’t take free lunches because they’re afraid their friends will think that they’re poor. In a peer-pressure sense, we see the impact of hunger,” Shambaugh-Miller said. “The kids lose value of their own personal being when it comes to how they see themselves. Now, when we do free meal programs, we do it for everybody in the school, because you don’t know the ones who really need it.”
Will food insecurity ever be resolved? Shambaugh-Miller thinks there is a definite solution:
“Until that lower unemployment rate translates into higher paying jobs, the increase that we’re seeing in the increase of basic economic needs means that the wage is still stagnant from the recession and hasn’t caught up. Hunger is picking up due to a lack of connect between wages and prices.”