By SHERIDAN WIMMER
“When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”
For Debbie Bearden in Allen County, her dad was an example of someone who built longer tables.
“I grew up on a dairy, and my dad allowed neighbors to get milk from our milk tanks,” Bearden says. “And I remember families would come with three or four gallon jugs and whether or not they could pay for it, my dad always let them have milk. Their kids needed it.”
Bearden is the county coordinator for Allen County Farm Bureau and has worked hard to lessen food insecurity in her community.
Food insecurity is a complex issue. We are lucky in the United States to have a plentiful, safe food supply, yet families still often struggle to acquire what they need, both in quality and quantity, because of financial hardships. It is this lack of consistent access that qualifies as food insecurity.
According to a report from Kansas Health Institute (KHI), children who grow up in food-insecure homes are more likely than their food-secure peers to have iron-deficiency anemia, are more susceptible to infection and are more likely to have a history of hospitalization. Beyond that, they also may develop behavioral problems, obesity and mental health issues, resulting in poor work performance.
Food insecurity also has economic pitfalls. A 2011 report by Center for American Progress estimates the cost of food insecurity in Kansas at a whopping $1.62 billion in 2010 alone from indirect costs of lost productivity, avoidable health care, private-sector food assistance programs and the need for increased educational services.
In 2018, the food insecurity rate in Kansas was 12.7 percent, according to Feeding America. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the projected overall food insecurity rate for Kansas was 15.9 percent.
Other data from Feeding America show a higher concentration of food insecure counties in the southeast area of the state. For example, Woodson County went from 17.7 percent in 2018 to 20.7 percent projected in 2020. Its neighbor, Allen County, increased from 15.2 percent to 18.1 percent.
Rial Carver, program manager for the Rural Grocery Initiative, a Kansas State University Research and Extension effort, says this increase is an indicator of two criteria — income and access.
“When we’re talking about access to healthy food, there are two criteria to take into consideration — the income level and the access level of food in the area,” Carver says. “Those two indicators determine low-income or low-access areas, previously known as food deserts, according to the USDA. There are also environmental factors that contribute to challenges faced by low-income and low-access areas, for instance the area may have experienced historical economic challenges over the years.”
END HUNGER IN KANSAS FUND
During the pandemic, Kansas Farm Bureau’s Foundation for Agriculture and Farm Bureau Financial Services (FBFS) joined forces to address food insecurity, food deserts and other hunger issues in Kansas.
“With or without a global pandemic, it’s important all families have access to food,” Terry Holdren, CEO of Kansas Farm Bureau, says. “COVID-19 will have long-term impacts on the economy, and there are going to be more people who may have difficulties when it comes to adequately feeding themselves and their families. This is an opportunity to help them.”
During the pandemic, the program (which is still accepting donations) encouraged county Farm Bureaus and Farm Bureau Financial Services agents across the state to each contribute 50 cents per member in their respective county. The Foundation matched up to 50 cents per member, per county, totaling a $1.50 per member, per county donation.
“We welcomed the opportunity to team up on this project to provide some hope in an uncertain time,” Michelle Hubert, regional vice president of Farm Bureau Financial Services, says. “Farm Bureau Financial Services stands strong on helping Kansas communities thrive.”
The money went to local food banks or pantries in the respective county.
“When End Hunger rolled out, the Allen County Farm Bureau board sent 50 cents for every member in our organization, and the Farm Bureau Financial Services agents then sent 50 cents for each of their clients,” Bearden says. “We donated $1,057 to our local food pantry.”
Overall, the End Hunger campaign raised more than $95,000, which was given to 148 food pantry locations in each of the 105 counties in Kansas.
“Who better to address food insecurity than those who are focusing on it?” Bearden says on the involvement of Farm Bureau in food insecurity.
In Allen County, Farm Bureau members and agents participated in the End Hunger campaign, but they’ve been working on food insecurity issues in several other ways.
Farmers markets are a popular attraction for local vendors and shoppers. Produce, meat, baked goods and even crafts — there’s always an opportunity for healthy food at local farmers markets. In 2009, the Allen County Farm Bureau board supported Bearden in her effort to restart a farmers market in Iola.
“The County Farm Bureau board that year was instrumental in getting the Allen County Farmers Market started after a five-year hiatus in Iola,” she says. “Every board since has been very supportive of the efforts to increase access to healthy food."
“We researched how to outfit the vendors in order to keep them and shoppers safe,” Bearden says of efforts in 2020. “Vendors and shoppers wore face masks and vendors could wear gloves or use hand sanitizer between each transaction. They were encouraged to have two people — one to handle product, the other to handle money. There were also social distancing measures.”
Although Bearden says they saw a decline in shoppers, they had an increase in sales.
“People bought more when they came so they could stock up to decrease the number of times they had to be out of their homes, and this created another avenue for shoppers when grocery store shelves were thinning,” she says.
In 2020, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded a grant for more than $4 million to the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) through the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program to continue “Double Up Food Bucks.”
The program offers a dollar-for-dollar match for eligible shoppers to purchase fruits and vegetables at participating locations. The Allen County Farmers Market offers “Double Up Food Bucks” for anyone who has an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“So, if someone comes to our farmers market with an EBT card and they swipe their card and get $24 off of it, they’re also given Double Up Food Bucks tokens for another $24,” Bearden explains. “That’s $48 to shop with. Double Up Food Bucks can only be used for fruits and vegetables. Then they have their EBT funds to buy eggs, bread, meat, honey or baked goods.
“Farmers markets are a big educational process veiled under neighborly conversations,” Bearden says. “The conversations you have can educate people about their food.”
Another important factor surrounding food insecurity is access to grocery stores. The Rural Grocery Initiative aims to help in both resources and financing for rural grocery stores across Kansas.
“The initiative aims to provide resources for rural communities and rural grocers to help them be more sustainable,” Carver says. “Over the years we’ve developed the rural grocery toolkits that outline how a community member might open a grocery store. In addition, our Kansas Healthy Food Initiative is a financial resource to increase access to healthy food to underserved areas of the state.”
Keeping rural grocery stores open and thriving is an important aspect of keeping Kansas communities alive.
“We like to think about the importance of grocery stores in small-town Kansas in three ways,” Carver says. “First is the economic contribution they make to their communities. They’re an employer and contribute to the local tax base. Second, they can be the best source for healthy food in rural communities, and third, they provide a cultural hub for the community. There are so many examples of this. They’re the local coffee shop or they support local schools and teams. We’ve seen some stores that are also libraries or places to showcase art and music.”
In Allen County, a grocery store was at the precipice of closing — its owners wanted to retire, and they couldn’t find a buyer.
“Closing that store meant the eastern half of Allen County, the southeastern part of Anderson County, western part of Bourbon County and the northeastern part of Neosho County would have had to drive 20 miles or more for groceries,” Bearden says. “That may not sound far to some, but for our older shoppers, that’s a long way.”
The community got creative and created a food co-op that sold memberships. They then borrowed money and the co-op members bought the grocery store now known as the Marmaton Market.
“It has been a struggle, honestly,” Bearden says. “We were able to borrow money from the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative and the co-op is paying back loans. We were able to keep the store, and it’s a huge benefit to have something closer for our older generation and rural members. The grocery store is also just across the street from low-income housing.”
There are a lot of programs helping mitigate the issue, including SNAP, the National School Lunch Program, WIC, and others, but it starts at the local level. It starts with people like Debbie Bearden and her dad who know the implications of food insecurity and the value of creating a safer food supply for everyone in their community through farmers markets and rural grocery stores.
We can make a difference by building longer tables. Can you?