Widespread hunger in southeast Kansas illuminates need for decisive action

November 8, 2021 3:33 am

According to a new report from Kansas Appleseed, one in four children in southeast Kansas is food insecure. (Getty Images)

Kansas is an agricultural powerhouse, producing 64% of the nation’s sorghum and 23% of its winter wheat. We’re ranked third in cattle production and beef processing, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

So why are this state’s residents going hungry?

According to the nonprofit advocacy group Kansas Appleseed, one in six residents of southeast Kansas is food insecure, and one in every four children in the region is food insecure. That’s the topic of Appleseed’s vital new report, Hunger in Southeast Kansas, which Haley Kottler and Caleb Smith chatted with me about in this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast.

While they’re tackling the issue statewide, these two advocates say the need is especially intense in the nine counties making up that particular region — Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson and Woodson. 

“Right now, the numbers in southeast Kansas are staggering,” said Kottler, the group’s Thriving campaign director.

Appleseed goes further than these distressing statistics in its new report. Smith is the group’s Inclusive campaign director and based in Pittsburg. He spoke with residents, listened to their stories, and learned about the obstacles they faced in receiving food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) and keeping their families healthy.

“We fleshed out all this policy research with actual stories on the ground of things that people were experiencing, but don’t necessarily show in statistics,” Smith told me. “So one of the things that we heard a lot was that child support cooperation was an issue, which it’s sort of hard to put in a statistic of why that’s a problem.”

Haley Kottler, left, and Caleb Smith of Kansas Appleseed spoke about hunger in southeast Kansas on this week’s Reflector podcast. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

In other words, current state regulations — put in place by the odiously named HOPE Act — limit food aid for those who won’t help authorities enforce child support judgments. While it might sound like a good idea, in reality the requirement leads many to forego aid out of concern for their family’s safety or stability. A bill addressing the issue was heard and passed out of committee last session, but the full House of Representatives didn’t take action.

That’s disgraceful. State legislators need to make things right as soon as the new session begins. (They should repeal the entire HOPE Act while they’re at it, but that’s another column for another time.)

Kansas, we can do better than this. Not only do we produce an astonishing amount of food, enough to ship around the world, but you simply cannot summon a moral defense of allowing children and families to go hungry.

– Clay Wirestone

“We have that opportunity again this year. Advocates are going to have to work to reintroduce this bill,” Kottler said. “It died last year, and we must ensure that it receives a floor vote. You know, southeast Kansans are telling us that this is the solution to their hardships.”

Kansas, we can do better than this.

Not only do we produce an astonishing amount of food, enough to ship around the world, but you simply cannot summon a moral defense of allowing children and families to go hungry. While the state has made some progress in encouraging healthy eating through the remarkable Double Up Food Bucks program, which also supports local agriculture, we simply must feed our fellow Kansans.

The SNAP program offers unparalleled effectiveness and efficiency for a government program, and lawmakers from all parties should be proud to support making it available for every single person in this state who needs help. Full disclosure: During my nearly four years working at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children, I helped advocate for SNAP and other safety net programs.

We have work to do among ourselves, though. Just because you need help doesn’t mean you ask for it. Smith noted that a looming barrier in southeast Kansas was simply concern about what other people thought.

The front page of the new Kansas Appleseed report on hunger. (Kansas Appleseed)

“Probably the biggest thing I heard just from almost everybody I spoke to was, just, there’s a stigma,” Smith said. “And it just seemed even stronger during this pandemic because everybody said they kind of felt like their neighbors were watching them. Right? People were at work less. People were staying home more.”

The stigma problem extends beyond southeast Kansas, of course. Most of us don’t like feeling dependent on others, and we hate feeling judged. We are then lightning quick to judge others.

On all levels, and in all regions, overcoming stigma requires courage. It takes stepping outside of one’s self and doing the best thing for the most people. That’s courage Appleseed staff saw emerge during their interviews.

“I think it is really important that folks who are affected by hunger … lead the fight for change,” Smith said. “And they are doing it, as we saw during this report. People were very willing to talk to us, almost in all, in all aspects.”

Everyone could learn a lesson here. Stigma not only shapes our surroundings but also deforms our beliefs. Politicians who would never turn away a hungry family member or needy constituent enthusiastically vote for laws like the HOPE Act. These elected officials have internalized stigma against those seeking help and programs designed to benefit them. States such as Kansas, teeming with resources, decide to put profits over people. Poverty, we reason, must stem from moral deficiency, rather than lacking money. 

Read Appleseed’s report. It details further obstacles faced by our fellow Kansans, along with proposals to overcome them. Lawmakers, advocates and everyday folks should work together in creating a new reality.

No one in our state of plenty should ever go hungry.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.