by Karen E. Ehrens
“Here? In North Dakota?” “There are hungry children?” Those are questions I hear or see in people’s faces when I talk about the fact that there are in 16,780 kids in North Dakota who don’t have enough food, at times, for a healthy, active life and don’t have reliable access to nutritious and affordable food. Right here in Burleigh County there are 1,840 kids in that situation.
How can that be? In North Dakota, over 90 percent of our land is used to raise food, and agriculture is the leading industry. We lead the nation in the production of several crops including flax, canola, wheat, dry beans and others. However, it is raw ingredients that we grow, and most of these ingredients leave the state to be processed before they come back ready to cook or eat.
In our ‘sea of plenty’ there are ‘food deserts;’ large geographic areas with no or distant mainstream grocery stores. Many of the people now living in North Dakota’s food deserts once lived rich in local foods with hunting, gathering, gardening and farming traditions. Some are Native American people who were forced to re-settle to reservation lands where their access to food and land was greatly changed and/or restricted. Some are farming families who live in areas where farms are getting larger, neighbors are located further away, and grocery stores are far between.
Hunger in children looks different than it did 50 years ago. Some still have images of skinny children with torn clothing and dirty faces. Today, hunger, or food insecurity, tends to be less visible. There are reliable programs in place during the school year – school lunch and school breakfast, that bring healthful food to children each school day. Hunger may be experienced more during those times when school is not on, in the summer or weekends.
Seniors are another vulnerable group; many of our loved seniors live on fixed incomes. In the recent ‘boom times’ in our state, high rents and increased costs of food and prescription medications are challenging the ability of our mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles to meet these expenses and still purchase food. Programs such as meals at Senior Centers and Meals on Wheels home-delivered meals are in place to help.
With these and other programs in place, North Dakota can claim one of the lowest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the nation. Yet, still nearly eight percent, or about 56,430 people in our state, experience food insecurity and hunger.
Can it be done? Can we eliminate hunger in our state? No other state is closer to this goal than North Dakota.
This September, the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition will bring together people working to make a hunger-free state. The Creating Hunger-Free Communities Summit will be held September 17-18, 2015 at the Bismarck Event Center in central Bismarck.
Speakers from national organizations will share important information. Sessions scheduled to date include: “Building Healthy Communities Through Partnerships and Prevention,” the Minneapolis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank; “New Directions in Food Assistance Programs” from Feeding America, the national food bank network; the Hunger Impact Program at the AARP Foundation; “How a Morning Meal Changes Lives” by Dayle Hayes; “School Meals that Rock”; and North Dakota’s own food and hunger experts will share ideas and experiences with those who attend.
Do you share the vision of a hunger-free North Dakota? We invite you to join us at the Creating Hunger-Free Communities Summit in Bismarck and return home with plans for what you can do to end hunger in your community.
If you are not able to attend the full conference, the public will be invited to attend an open house on the evening of September 17 at the Event Center. We may be making some ‘Stone Soup’ and enjoying music and displays. Look for more information on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/hungerfreend and specific information on the Summit event at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1616053271965252/
Karen Ehrens is the coordinator for the Creating a Hunger Free North Dakota Coalition. As a consultant with the ND Department of Agriculture’s Going Local foods initiative, she helps more people access vegetables with the Hunger Free Garden initiative. With her husband she teaches cooking classes and offers ways to help people love to eat vegetables, including their daughter, who is slowly coming around!