Seldom does a week pass in Storm Lake when I am not writing something about at least one effort to ease hunger.
Donations to stock the local food pantries. Food collections at local churches. The new hunger prevention committee. Student food drives. Plans for a food box distribution by volunteers at the middle school. The mobile food pantry events. The Bridge gardens, and community gardens programs. The schools summer lunch programs. Extra food from restaurants being distributed as meals to low income families. A new idea for community meals. Admissions to various events paid for by cans of food for the needy. Adopt a Family. Thanksgiving meals for those in need. And then some.
It is extraordinary and inspiring. It is beautiful. You could even call it heroic.
It is one community standing in the breech against a massive problem, because it knows that if it doesn't, no one will.
And, unfortunately, even all of this will not solve anything. We are treating a symptom - with epic and touching kind-heartedness - but still dealing with the symptom while little is being done about the illness.
This is a community in which about three out of every four students in the public schools live at a level of need to qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Over 70 percent!
Times have changed. Once people could look the other way at hunger issues, chalking need up to welfare cases too lazy to work. People on food stamps in grocery stores who would them pull out a wad of cash and head for the alcohol aisle, cigarettes and lottery tickets, and cart it all out to an expensive SUV.
If that was ever really true, it hardly is now. There will always be a few who work the system. But by and large, poverty in Storm Lake is working poverty.
Often a parent working two jobs, or three, maybe with an older child left to watch younger siblings or to work long hours at night to contribute to the family budget, while the household still runs out of food money by the end of the month.
They are not drug addicts, they are not afraid of work, they are not reckless spenders. They are working people, just hanging on with many relatively low-paying jobs in the area, often with people expected to do full time work production but being paid 30 hours of wages to avoid having to pay for their insurance coverage or provide any benefits. Or undocumented workers being paid a pitiful wage under the table for long hours.
Meanwhile, rent in the community is not cheap, for rural Iowa, no doubt partly because past tenants have created issues. Owners of multi-unit apartment housing get a big new property tax rollback break this year, which threatens to force cities to cut services. Do you think owners will use it to cut the rent of struggling tenants? I'll believe that when I see it.
It was disheartening to see senior citizens in line at the most recent mobile food pantry event. People who have worked all their lives. Only three times in 40 years has there been no cost of living increase for retirees, all during the Obama Administration.
I'm told that the federal government has more than 70 laws and programs to address poverty, but what is doesn't have is a plan to prevent working people from falling into poverty to begin with.
I'm also told that one of every four households in Iowa is considered "food unstable" - in other words, they may not eat tomorrow.
This, in the midst of what is the most productive food growing soil on earth. Communities full of stores packed with empty-calorie junk food. A society that is a virtual buffet of excess.
And still, it seems more and more of our neighbors can barely afford to eat. People who would once have been middle class are now poor, and people who would have been poor, are in crisis.
In some recent years, Governor Branstad has resisted allowing state funding for food banks, suggesting that this would just put more people in line. Strange thinking.
We can donate and volunteer and give food to get people through the right now - in fact, we have to. We all know that with an empty belly, nothing gets done. You can't work or study effectively, and any efforts to imporve one's station in life has to take a back seat to getting the family fed day to day.
I fear though, that someday soon, the need for so many will outstrip the ability of the few to respond, and then what? We have not really addressed the cheap labor mindset, high health care costs, limited housing and other options that help to put working people in a position where they must depend on generosity.
Feeding the need is step one, but eventually, we will have to take steps to fix it.