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Rural realities: Hunger in the heartland


Churches address food deserts and food insecurity

Part Two in a Three-Part Series
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Empty grocery stores like this one in Bloomfield, Kentucky, are common sights in rural America. Small populations are not attractive to national supermarket chains, so residents are left in food deserts. Courtesy of Lisa Zahalka

Fresh out of seminary, a pastor listens intently as the chair of the nominating committee drives around the countryside, narrating the history of a rural community that has seen better days. As she listens, she takes note of the sagging porches with faded and torn upholstered furniture. They pass sheep grazing behind a dilapidated barn, and the pastor silently reminds God that this was not what she had in mind when she said “yes” to tending the flock.

Understanding the terms

Food deserts: Food deserts are defined as parts of the country where fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods are not easily accessed.

Food insecurity: Food insecurity is “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

She wonders when the church interviewing her had last seen a fresh coat of paint, and if there were funds to fix the roof that was missing a slate or two. And what was that abandoned building on the edge of town? The one with weeds overtaking the asphalt parking lot.

That was our grocery store. It’s been gone for a while. You’re OK with driving a bit to get groceries, right, Pastor?

Before she can answer, the committee chair lists the grocery stores by how many miles away they are, only pausing to point out where the local food pantry is housed — and look, the Methodist church just put a sign out for its chicken and biscuit dinner.

Who needs a grocery store when the Methodists are serving chicken and biscuits? There’s a woman there who is famous for her apple dumplings. You will be well-fed, Pastor.

The pastor musters a smile and silently gives God a piece of her mind.

God, this is not what I expected when I said “yes” to rural ministry.

Repainting the rural picture

Rural living has been romanticized for far too long with images of freshly baked pies cooling on windowsills and families pulling up to food-laden dinner tables, Norman Rockwell-style. But the reality is that those living in rural America are not necessarily well-fed.

Rural hunger at a glance

2.4 million rural households face hunger

3/4 of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas

86% of the counties with the highest rates of child food insecurity are rural

Source: Feeding America

Although rural communities are the very places that grow produce and raise animals for meat and dairy products, healthy food is a scarcity in many such communities, and many families either go hungry or fill up on food that is cheap and unhealthy.

A report from Feeding America, an advocacy group headquartered in Chicago, found that 76 percent of counties in the United States struggling with food insecurity are rural counties.

The Rev. Kate Morrison serves in one such county in the Midwest.

Morrison is the associate pastor for youth and young adult ministries at First Wyoming United Presbyterian Church in Torrington, Wyoming — a town with a little over 6,500 people. The 80-member congregation is yoked with Community Presbyterian Church in Lingle, Wyoming, population 800.

Rural towns like Bloomfield, Kentucky, might look idyllic, but beneath the surface is the “darkness of hunger,” says the Rev. Lisa Zahalka. Courtesy of Lisa Zahalka

Morrison, who has been in Wyoming for two years, never imagined being in a place where farming and ranching — and don’t forget the sugar beet processing factory, she points out — are the main industries.

“Seminary certainly didn’t prepare me for rural ministry. I joke with friends that if they need hands-on experience, come out here because they’ll just throw you right in,” Morrison said.

Among the ministry challenges she has been “thrown into” is the growing problem of hunger.

“Even though we are in an agricultural area, we have a lot of food insecurity in our community. Much of this is due to the low-paying jobs in the area. More folks are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

And while Torrington is “lucky to have two grocery stores,” many people find it hard to afford the groceries from them, Morrison says.

Rising food prices are not only a trend in Wyoming, but nationwide. In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture predicted a 2 to 3 percent increase in the price of veal and beef, a 4 to 5 percent increase in the price of eggs, and a 3 to 4 percent increase in the price of cereal and bakery items.

“The only place that does offer ‘cheap’ food is the nearest Walmart, which is 40 miles across the state line in Nebraska. But one must have reliable transportation to get there,” Morrison said.

Being able to get to good and affordable food is a challenge in rural communities. The problem, though, goes beyond owning a reliable car and having money to fill its gas tank. In Marion, Illinois, the Rev. Wade Halva of First Presbyterian Church sees the lack of public transportation adding to the rural hunger problem.

“The public housing in Marion is on the south side of town. The grocery stores are on the north side, across a four-lane highway with a 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. For people on foot, these stores are nearly inaccessible, so they often shop at dollar stores, drugstores or the ubiquitous gas station, which all have higher costs and less healthy food,” Halva said.

Halva’s congregation does what it can to ease food insecurity and create an oasis amid the food desert. In addition to traditional church outreach such as serving at soup kitchens and preparing meals for those in transitional housing, Halva says there are church members who “mini farm” and who are avid gardeners who bring their fresh foods into church to share and take to the food pantry. First Presbyterian Church also has a gardening program in coordination with Lutheran Social Services that teaches people coming out of juvenile incarceration how to grow vegetables.

“Juvenile offenders are taught what they can do with fresh foods. They also learn a skill that they can use when they return to the world,” Halva said.

Rural obesity on the rise

It’s ironic that when talking about food insecurity and food deserts in rural America, one must talk about the growing rate of obesity as well. In June 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their latest findings, revealing the following: 22 percent of rural youth were obese, compared with 17 percent of urban youth; 47 percent of rural women were obese, compared with 38 percent of urban women; and 39 percent of rural men were obese, compared with 32 percent of urban men.

While rural obesity has many factors to consider, such as lack of access to gyms and weight loss support groups, the reliance on discount stores for food plays a role in rural obesity, pastors observe. And often, Dollar General is mentioned when talking about the blessings and curses of rural discount stores.

In 2014, the discount chain, which began in small-town Kentucky in 1955, identified 14,000 potential rural areas to open new stores in. The company’s philosophy has been to go where others aren’t going. That is, when other national chains look down on rural communities due to a lack of economic sustainability, Dollar General doesn’t. The company has become an unlikely savior of sorts, providing forgotten customers with just about everything they need, from wrapping paper and toilet tissue to clothing and food. Everything, that is, except healthy food.

“The limited selection of food at the Dollar store does not allow for a balanced diet,” said the Rev. Lisa Zahalka.

However, Zahalka, pastor of Big Spring Bloomfield Presbyterian Trinity Baptist Church in Bloomfield, Kentucky (yes, Presbyterians and Baptists under one roof), says Dollar General does fill a need, especially among the older population who “don’t always have the energy to drive to town or hike around a superstore.”

About six years ago, the town of Bloomfield lost its grocery store. While the mayor tried to get another grocery chain to come in, the response was that Bloomfield, with a population of 1,064, was too small to support it, Zahalka says. A year ago, though, a small produce store set up shop.

“We were so excited, but it was not to be what we expected. On the days that I have visited, the produce is usually going bad. I am sure the store will be gone soon,” Zahalka said.

Big Spring Bloomfield Presbyterian Trinity Baptist Church is exploring starting a food pantry, but in the meantime, the best way to help feed neighbors is by pulling together, recognizing the needs as they arise and doing what can be done.

“When word gets around that someone is in need, it’s not uncommon for folks just to cook and deliver casseroles,” Zahalka said.

Food trucks roll in

When free church dinners and the occasional casserole aren’t enough to meet the hunger needs, it’s time for the food trucks to start rolling.

In 2016, First Wyoming United Presbyterian Church was instrumental in bringing to its community a food truck brimming with canned and dry goods from the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies. The food truck, Morrison says, became a “huge community effort,” with volunteers coming not just from the Presbyterian church but from other churches to help unload the truck, set up and greet people as they “shopped.” Unfortunately, in May, the last food truck delivery was made. The food bank, located in Casper, Wyoming, wanted the community to offer a more permanent solution, such as a food pantry, Morrison says.

“Another organization has stepped up to explore the best spot for a permanent food pantry and we will continue to find ways to walk alongside those who are hungry,” Morrison said. One such solution is a ministry called “Caring and Sharing,” where boxes filled with food are put together by the church and then dropped off at the police station, where those applying for the free food pick the boxes up.

When the Rev. Tim Harmon first brought up the need for a mobile food pantry to his church leaders, the conversation went nowhere. First Presbyterian, located in Lake Park, Iowa, population 1,105, has a growing 65 and older population and fewer employment opportunities for younger people, Harmon says.

“Many of the issues facing rural communities like ours are getting worse, like hunger,” he said. But those in his church didn’t think hunger was an issue because the nearest food bank, they would point out, was “just 12 miles away,” Harmon says. 

Harmon didn’t give up, though. For two years, he talked about the need in Lake Park, preached and educated his congregation. Finally, the deacons got on board, even though session members still thought a mobile food pantry would fail. This past October marked the church’s first anniversary of having the mobile food pantry come to Lake Park. More than 40 families now come to the church on the first Thursday of the month for fresh produce, protein and nonperishable items. And for those who are homebound, there’s no problem, Harmon says.

“We call our homebound folks and take their orders and deliver what they need,” Harmon said. While the mobile food pantry has been a dream come true for the pastor, he is not stopping there. Harmon has visions of offering not just food each month, but a one-stop social service location where heating assistance, immunizations and other services can be found, in addition to lettuce and canned beans.

Zahalka has a dream as well. She wants to open an affordable grocery store in her community. Until that day comes, she focuses on what can be done now, and that is getting congregations more active in lobbying small grocery chains to come into rural communities.

“We need to convince these businesses that a small community can sustain them,” Zahalka said.


“Because while our little town may look idyllic, the darkness of hunger resides behind the faces.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. She admits that she is the “fresh out of seminary pastor” described in the opening of this story. She also admits to falling in love with the challenges of serving rural churches, even with the long drive to the grocery store.

Food insecurity and the Farm Bill

By Andrew Kang Barlett

The last Farm Bill, which is reauthorized every five years, expired on Sept. 30, 2018. While SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and crop support payments continue, certain important programs were put on hold. Since then, there have been no new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants to support farmer-to-eater community food projects, rural micro-enterprise development and farmers of color. The USDA also has not been accepting conservation program applications, making environmental land use planning difficult or impossible.

Passage of the Farm Bill has been challenging due to highly divergent House- and Senate-passed bills. SNAP rules are one area of disagreement. SNAP is a very successful antipoverty program, which lifted 1.5 million children out of poverty in 2016 (according to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau Survey), and two-thirds of SNAP funding goes directly to children and families. Nevertheless, the House Farm Bill calls for sharp cuts, restricted eligibility and harsher work requirements to SNAP and more than $20 billion in benefit cuts over 10 years. The bipartisan Senate bill maintains SNAP funding and reduces barriers to enrollment.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program’s first of nine principles of a faithful Farm Bill in the Eater’s Guide to the Farm Bill is to “protect and strengthen programs that reduce hunger and improve nutrition in the United States.” To learn more, go to You can also read the Hunger Program’s Food & Faith blog at

Andrew Kang Bartlett is an associate for national hunger concerns at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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