Poor, urban residents aren’t alone in facing hunger. Rural Americans are going hungry, too

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the nonprofit Michigan Advance news service reported in November that nearly 14% of Michigan residents, or 1.3 million people, are struggling with food insecurity. Forget a holiday turkey. These people live in households that are struggling to put any food on the table at all. And a surprising number of them live in what is supposed to be Michigan’s—and America’s—breadbasket: rural communities.

Looking at Michigan alone, the Advance reported that 15% or more of Michigan residents in 19 counties face food insecurity. Wayne County, where Detroit is located, is one of those counties. The other counties, though, are every inch rural areas, including Roscommon (fewer than 24,000 residents in 2018), Gogebic (just over 15,000 residents), and Houghton (36,000). According to Feeding America, which provided the information for the Michigan Advance report, Michigan’s rural hunger statistics mirror those of the U.S. as a whole. In a Dec. 12 email to Daily Kos, Zuani Villarreal, Feeding America’s director of communications, said that “rural counties represent 79% of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity.”

A Feeding America fact sheet lays out the numbers: 2.3 million rural households in the United States are going hungry. Rural residents also face unique challenges that make it harder for them to access food. They are more likely to live in food deserts (more than 10 miles away from a supermarket, big-box store, or other kind of grocery store with healthy food options). They are more likely to be unemployed, and to have a low-wage job when they are employed. According to a July report from the Center for American Progress, in fact, the service industry provides the largest share of jobs in both metro and nonmetro counties. And while the report says that agriculture provides nearly 17% of the jobs in what it calls “highly rural and remote areas,” the 2019 income outlook for agricultural workers is bleak. “The projected farm income for 2019 is in the bottom quartile of all years since 1929,” the report says, thanks to a combination of issues, including corporate concentration and power in the food industry.

Donald Trump’s trade war is also having a huge impact on rural farmers. In August, CNBC reported that American farmers had lost their fourth-largest export market, China, when the country cancelled all of its planned purchases of U.S. farm products. One North Dakota farmer told CNBC, “There’s no incentive to keep farming, except that I’ve invested everything I have in farming, and it’s hard to walk away.”

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-founder of the national Poor People’s Campaign, added that farmers are also being challenged by high debt and by having trouble being paid adequately for their products, particularly farmers who have contracted with large agribusiness firms. “You’re growing crops now for multinational agribusiness, not to actually feed the local communities,” she told Daily Kos. The Poor People’s Campaign, which is currently active in 42 states, works to bring people living in poverty together to organize across America’s traditional demographic divisions, including the rural-urban divide. Urban residents may imagine that their rural neighbors are able to live off the land, but, according to Theoharis, that’s becoming harder to do. Consolidation in the seed industry, to name just one factor, has led to huge price increases. According to a Center for American Progress report released in May, “between 1995 and 2011, the cost of purchasing seed to plant one acre of soybeans and corn increased 325 percent and 259 percent, respectively.” Theoharis added that she has heard stories of rural people who look out for and prepare roadkill to feed themselves and their neighbors. “Living off the land has become more and more difficult,” she said, “and again, this is in a country where we’re throwing out more food than it takes to feed everyone. But because of inequality, because of this kind of immoral economic system, people are hungry—even when they’re farmers, even when they are gardeners, even when, for generations, their families have lived off the land.”

A reliance on service jobs to make ends meet and oppression from multinational businesses aren’t the only things that rural and nonrural residents have in common. Both groups are also struggling to pay the rent. In April, CBS News said that rural Americans are facing a housing affordability crisis driven largely by stagnating and declining incomes. Rural and urban residents alike are also being squeezed by the Trump administration’s war on the poor. The CBS report says that Trump’s proposed 2020 budget includes cuts to rural housing programs, while a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that offered loans for affordable rent hasn’t had direct financing since 2011. The rural housing program cuts are a part of proposed “drastic” cuts to housing programs overall. And, just in time for Christmas, the Trump administration has either implemented or is proposing cuts to food stamps that could impact more than 3 million Americans, with 2.2 million people being entirely cut off.

While most people know how essential food aid is for urban people living in poverty, an October 2018 report by Harvest Public Media said that research conducted by the national Food Research and Action Center shows that, “since 2012, SNAP (food stamp) participation is highest among households in rural areas and small towns under 2,500 people.” More rural residents also rely on food assistance—16% in rural areas as opposed to 13% of the people in urban areas, according to the report. Food Research and Action didn’t respond to Daily Kos’ requests for comment for this story.

Even though Trump administration policies are exacerbating trends that contribute to rural poverty and hunger, Trump himself remains popular with rural voters. According to a report last week by FiveThirtyEight, Trump is “enormously popular among residents of rural areas, with a 61 percent approval rating and a 26 percent disapproval rating.” Another poll cited in the FiveThirtyEight report shows Trump with a 62% approval and 35% disapproval rating among people in rural areas.

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