Digging into reasons for hunger in our community

Published 11:18 am Friday, December 9, 2011

We were at a community event a couple of months ago and happened to be talking to a woman who mentioned that 15 percent of Austin residents weren’t getting enough to eat — not by choice, but because they couldn’t afford enough food to have three meals a day every day.

If my mouth hadn’t been full of an excellent free meal, I’m sure my jaw would have dropped. But good manners prevailed.

The conversation soon moved on in other directions but I couldn’t forget the hunger statistic. Seated 15 feet from the buffet, my wife and I could see as the event tapered to an end that many pounds of food were going to go uneaten and, ultimately, would be thrown away.

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The disconnect was glaring: Thousands of people, all of them within a few miles of me, were going hungry at the same time many of us couldn’t even eat all the food that was set before us.

Next morning, I started making calls, hoping to debunk the idea that so many people in our area are going hungry. Turns out, however, that while the number may not be quite 15 percent, the real total is not far off that mark.

As Austin Daily Herald writer Matt Peterson reported on Nov. 25, somewhere between 11 and 14 percent of Mower County residents miss at least one meal a day because they can’t afford it.

What is more shocking, in some ways, is how far up the income ladder the problem extends. Economic-based hunger affects more people than we might like to acknowledge.

As Matt began to research that story, as well as a follow-up that ran in yesterday’s paper and others that are still in development, it became clear that hunger is a complex issue that is strongly linked to poverty — but also to a lack of means for getting food from points of surplus to points of need, to the difficulties of navigating the government’s highly structured food help systems and to simple pride.

It is not like there aren’t organizations worried about and working on hunger problems in our county. Churches and religious groups provide meals and groceries. Government programs, as cumbersome as they may be, provide significant help. Austin-based Hormel has given more than $240,000 to anti-hunger efforts in Minnesota and Iowa.

But somehow, despite those efforts and despite living in one of the nation’s great food-producing areas, many in our communities still don’t get enough to eat.

Somewhere, there is a structural problem that keeps us from connecting hungry people with the food they need. Given its resources, maybe Austin can be the place where an answer emerges.