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Rural hunger

Mike Corliss of Falls City plays with his son Mike, almost 2, as they wait for the start of food distribution March 26, 2012, at Prichard Auditorium in Falls City. Corliss, who is originally from the area, recently moved back from Colorado after trying to find work there. He said he just found welding work in Sabetha, Kan. (ROBERT BECKER/Lincoln Journal Star)

Food insecurity for children is more of a problem in rural areas of Nebraska than in more populated places, according to a "Poverty on the Great Plains" analysis released Friday by the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs.

Almost one in five children living in rural Nebraska counties fit the food-insecure profile in research results drawn from the 2010 Census and from 2009 Feeding America data.

Jon Bailey, the center's Lyons-based director of rural research, said signs of poverty and hunger show up during one of the biggest surges in agricultural prosperity in history and in the same place where the food is produced.

"One of the constant ironies of this region is that we have a large food-insecure population in one of the greatest agricultural regions in the world," he said.

"Right in the middle of the breadbasket of the United States, there's a tremendous food-insecurity problem."

The Friday report is the most recent in a series by center staff that examines socio-economic aspects of the census for a grouping of states that includes the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas and portions of four adjoining states.

Along with food insecurity, it looked at poverty rates in rural counties, defined as those without a population center as large as 10,000 people, and at children living in poverty.

The rural poverty rate in Nebraska was 12.2 percent, slightly lower than the regional average for all counties of 12.4 percent. But rural poverty ranged as high as 20.6 percent in South Dakota, where Native Americans living on reservations make up a much bigger slice of the rural population.

And even in Nebraska -- first in red meat production nationally, third in corn production and highly ranked in several other grain and livestock categories -- 18.9 percent of rural children were food insecure, compared to 17.2 percent in Lancaster and other counties with a population center larger than 50,000 and with much less of a stake in food production.

Food-insecure status applies to households where there's a lack of nutritionally adequate food or where access to food interferes with an active, healthy life.

Bailey said the study did not go into enough detail to draw strong conclusions about where, in particular, the neediest people in rural counties live.

"But you can surmise, from looking at farm and nonfarm incomes in the last few years, that it's probably nonfarm families living in rural areas" and faced with "generally, fairly low-wage work in rural communities."

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Detail also is lacking in being able to determine the degree to which agricultural prosperity transfers to main streets in small towns in the past decade -- or not.

"I think, in general, the link between agricultural prosperity and town prosperity may not be as strong as it once was," Bailey said.

On a regional basis, Iowa topped the list for food-insecure children in rural areas at 34.6 percent. That was more than twice the rate determined for Iowa's metro counties.

North Dakota's rate was the lowest among states in that category at 14.6 percent. But that was well above the 9.1 percent for its metro counties.

"Poverty on the Great Plains" reflects some larger demographic trends, including fewer people living in rural settings and fewer people living in rural settings engaged in food production.

Earlier, the rate of urban poverty exceeded the rural rate in the country's midsection, Bailey said. "But it looks like, in this part of the country, rural poverty kind of overtook urban poverty about the mid-1970s or so. And ever since, it's been a little bit higher."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

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