Forum seeks solutions to hunger, food insecurity

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Posted: Friday, September 27, 2019 6:00 am

MAYVILLE – About 30 people attended a public forum Thursday, Sept. 19 here to raise awareness about hunger in Traill County and discuss ways to address food insecurity issues linked to poverty.

Billed as a community conversation, the 90-minute session on the Mayville State University campus tackled issues such as eliminating the stereotypes of being homeless and how people can support neighbors struggling to feed their kids.

Pastor Joe Johnson of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Hillsboro, one of the forum’s moderators, challenged those in the audience to change how they see the homeless.

“Oftentimes, the image of being homeless is a man … who has beard and who is middle-aged or older,” said Johnson. “That’s one of the images of poverty.

“But another might be the star basketball player or star athlete or that star student. Let’s think a little bit beyond men.”

Johnson surveyed 150 people during his research on local homelessness and asked respondents to estimate the average age of a homeless person.

Participants were surprised to find their average guess of 32 years old was more than 20 years off, according to Johnson.

Open Door Mission, a rescue mission in Omaha, Neb., has published findings indicating that the average homeless person is 9 years old.

The Chapman Partnership, a nonprofit that operates two homeless shelters in Florida, listed the average age of its clients as 11 years old.

Johnson asked the audience at the forum in Mayville to reject the notion that everyone struggling with poverty is an addict.

Addiction can be a factor on the road to homelessness, but that doesn’t mean those weaning themselves off drugs or alcohol are not worth saving, he said.

“Especially as a pastor, if I see someone struggling with an addiction, does that mean we don’t help that person? The very definition of addiction is that you can’t help yourself,” Johnson said.

“Let’s get involved. Let’s help. Let’s intervene. Let’s be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Michelle Bye of MSU’s Child Development Programs said she drove a Traill County mother to a Fargo food pantry so she could avoid local pantries.

“She would rather drive an hour to get food than go to her hometown to get it,” Bye said. “That was heartbreaking.”

Taylor Syvertson, impact manager for Great Plains Food Bank, said her nonprofit distributed 15 million pounds of food a year ago in North Dakota.

The organization has adjusted how it delivers those supplies to those in need.

Mobile food pantries, pop-up distribution centers and child development programs have been introduced to provide food to clients, Syvertson said.

More efforts need to be made to erase the stigma of shame that food pantry users sometimes feel in small towns like Hillsboro or Mayville, Johnson said.

Syvertson presented results from 51 interviews in Traill, Grand Forks and Walsh counties showing 26 percent of clients served by the food bank were children.

Eighty-six percent indicated having a chronic disease while 61 percent reported having unpaid medical bills.

So what can be done to ease the struggle of families facing food insecurity?

Every survey respondent interviewed by Johnson at Our Savior’s said they wanted to have a role in improving the issue.

“People want to help and make a difference,” he said.

Jill Anderson, a counselor at Hillsboro Elementary School, said the Traill District Health Unit’s program that hands out backpacks filled with food on Fridays has been well received by kids and families.

Bye encouraged people to volunteer at their local food pantries or serve as drivers for delivering meals to seniors.

“It’s gratifying when you take a meal to someone. (You) might be the only one that client is going to see all day,” she said.

Kim Jacobson, Agassiz Valley Social Services director, urged people to have an open mind and treat neighbors as equals – no matter their income levels. 

“Be a friend. Being a good neighbor is a good place to start,” she said. “Encourage others to seek services … and support programs that help us meet those community needs for those folks who are needing a handout.”

Bye offered similar advice.

“Teach your kids and model acceptance of people who are maybe different,” she said. “Sometimes poverty is invisible but sometimes it isn’t.”

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