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In Retrospect: A Refugee Daughter & Food Insecurity in the Heartland

Author: Rose D. Recently, I was out in Central Illinois in the sleepy rural towns, left-over remnants of the passenger/freight railroad system, that crisscross the plains of this State. Not completely foreign settings for me, having been born in one of these small towns, and places where I spent many weekends and summers enjoying all the things that small-town life encompasses.

This visit was long overdue, serendipitous, and even cathartic. As my small import winded through the road, following the bend of the river on one side and the familiar limestone rock face and heavily forested areas on the other. Areas I use to trek on hikes; climbing up and down the steep hills, and through the heavy tree brush to get to hidden fishing holes as a child with my grandmother and uncle. A mix of serenity and nostalgia rushed over me. I viewed every structure and surface with the curiosity of a child, but with the lens of an adult, which personified their meaning more.

On separate days, as I traveled along the scenic bend of the river that led me to one small town and the countryside with its rolling green hills of pastureland to another; it occurred to me, how separated I was from the issues of this area, having been gone for so long. It shifted my focus for a moment, and the thoughts and feelings produced, as a result, still sit with me now.

Often, our conversations about food insecurity and food scarcity are relegated to urban areas and large cities. But food insecurity and scarcity occur in the heartland too, in the small towns of my birth and youth, that I have left behind. I suspect they may occur at higher rates and percentages than recorded.

The impact of this visit seemed ever more personified by the fact that I was moving on to a different stage, in both the figurative and metaphorical sense. But as I saw the abandoned buildings and shopping structures, that had become all too familiar in the midsize city I live in now; their impact was felt more acutely in these small communities.

Communities to me that already had so little economic development to begin with. Often because of necessity but some by choice. It made me wonder if these communities would have the wherewithal to weather the tides of change and if they could meet that need with the kind of small-town vigor and tight-knit community, I once knew.

Naturally, I wanted to know more. Data presented by Feeding America through their annual study Map the Meal Gap for 2019, shows about three-fourths of the State’s population is food insecure at 1,211,410 people. In addition, food insecurity rates are higher for the population of the area. [1]

This is very concerning and seemed like a strange juxtaposition. How could those who make a living growing and tending to our food, be without food?

In my parents’ stories of arriving in America as refugees from their war-torn country, and their odd jobs and reliance on charity while navigating their new home. I felt a swelling sense of comfort knowing our beginnings began in, small-town USA.

In those stories, my mother would tell me about her housekeeping and babysitting job while pregnant with me, at a farm, and how they received cuts of meats from the farmer’s family during holidays. Now, I wonder if that same neighborly hospitality still happens and if the numbers of food scarcity and insecurity in the heartland tell the whole story or only a part?

This week, while helping with a food drive for the agency, I wondered in those same communities; if this was a new norm or the unveiling of a long-standing need, now, only starting to be recognized. Reference: [1] 2021) Feeding America: Food Insecurity in Illinois Before COVID-19. Feeding America.

*Feeding America has released a 2020 & 2021 companion study to reflect the impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity

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