Something’s off here, really off.
Yesterday, at the old Bomgaars building, people waited in line for up to two hours in the cold wind and the first light snow of the season, for volunteers to hand out food trucked in from Des Moines. Nearly 50 were in line at my count, before the doors even opened.
There were elderly people leaning on walkers. Families with small children. A mother with a baby in a plastic carrier, shielded with a fleece blanket.
These aren’t people waiting in line for the big box store to open up with Black Friday deals on giant flat-screen TV’s, these are people in line for basic survival, right here in our community.
Here, in the midst of the some of the world’s richest farmland and most productive livestock industries, in a country with the supposedly richest society in the world, our neighbors are going hungry.
Thank goodness we have programs, and volunteers, good hearted people who give a little back to help others who may not be as fortunate. They are quiet heroes, in our book. I hate to think what the situation in this community would be like without them.
The food pantries, food distribution and food ministries efforts are not some kind of bonus in the Storm Lake area, or just for people who are going through a short-term crisis. At least they are not any more.
They are a necessity. People are relying on them. It’s the only thing getting some of them through the month.
These people aren’t freeloaders. Most of them are working, they just can’t make it any more. Or the cost of one medical setback or single parenthood has buried them too deep to escape. Or they have worked for a lifetime, but the limited Social Security check they receive doesn’t sustain them in later years.
They stand in the cold without complaint, they are grateful for whatever they are given. They have not been made bitter by circumstances.
At this event, often they have a treat at the end of the line. People smile as if blessed when handed a single cupcake at the end of the food line.
At a schools distribution recently, we ran out of everything with still a line of people coming.
We had to tell them that all we had left were some bags of potatoes. That’ll break your heart.
The people in line - I suspect they had come as soon as they could from a shift of work or picking up children - took the news in stoic fashion. It was almost as if they had grown used to life dealing out disappointments. This fatalism worries me. I fear they will stop struggling altogether some day.
They took the potatoes, and were glad for them. They would stretch them in any way possible, I imagine, to last the month.
More food was requested for the future, more hours of distribution will be tried, anything that can help.
We have high school students in our town starting a food pantry in their own school building, because they see hungry people and are moved to do something themselves. Some teenagers help out at each of the food distributions I have mentioned too. We are raising beautiful young people in this town, and learning to care for their fellow man is a fine education indeed.
A local church is collecting excess food and doling it out once a week - let nothing go to waste. Schools and small businesses are holding food drives. I could go on.
Our Adopt A Family program had the most intense start I’ve seen. In five days, well over 100 families were “adopted” with food for the holidays that they otherwise would not be able to have. Our Mr. Goodfellow program is also doing splendidly with many donations. A family brought in bags and bags of new coats yesterday for children who have none. It is humbling.
My point here is not to beg for more donations or more volunteers, or to shame people into doing more than they are able to.
The fact is, they do a lot already. This is one of the most giving communities I know of. Every time we take a photo of empty shelves at the UDMO pantry, they are magically replenished.
My fear is, we can’t win. We’re treading water here, plugging holes in dikes. There seem to be more and more people barely keeping a place to live and enough food on the table to get by. It’s in unending.
I’m afraid the time will come when we can’t provide enough programs, enough donations, enough food, to keep this fragile social structure afloat.
Over the past few years, at our elementary school, an average of 80 percent of the families of children have been low-income to the point of qualifiying for aid to provide school lunches for their children.
Eighty percent! In a county with only around 3 percent unemployment!
That compares to a 15.5 percent child poverty rate statewide and 21.8 percent nationally, according to the recent annual Kids Count report.
Our “land of plenty” is becoming a land of poverty.
All of the efforts being made to distribute food are treating the symptom. It is wonderful and necessary and heroic, but that doesn’t address the problem.
State and national leaders are ridiculously out of touch with the economic reality of our country. Our approach to poverty for far too long is that it is too complicated, that there’s nothing really that can be done except an endless stream of food stamps. We act like we don’t know what causes poverty, or how to change it. Or, we just blame the working poor for their own dilemma, because that’s easy and absolves us of any responsibility - which also achieves nothing at all.
Eventually we will have to admit that the economy - across the country and especially in Storm Lake - is not delivering the jobs needed, and also that workers are not receiving the education they need.
We’re trying, we really are. Our schools are offering more vocational options, a charter program tries to put an associate degree into reach for families. Iowa Central is working to teach English to those who need it, and offer workplace skills as they come into demand. We have to seize those resources for all they are worth, if we are to have hope for change. A young adult without a high school degree is at least four times more likely to be jobless. Without language or workplace skills, the chances of achieving a living wage are depressing slim.
Until we are able to take on poverty at its source, we will hand out food, knowing all the while that we are fighting a battle we can’t win.