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High food costs hurt the poor
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opinion Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Look across Minnesota’s landscape and everything that doesn’t have standing water has turned an explosive dark green. The growing season is underway; early season lettuce and other plants are starting to come to market. But here’s another fact of life: hunger hasn’t gone away.

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The lushness of the season can be a distraction, say people with anti-hunger groups, churches, and U.S. Post Office letter carriers who participated in food drive collections this winter and spring.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 Current Population Survey showed Minnesota had 64,000 low-paid workers making the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour or less. That is a category of the working poor and doesn’t count the unemployed, the elderly and others who struggle to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads. More than 500,000 Minnesotans still qualify for SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps).

Minnesota’s first phased-in minimum wage increase this August will help some working families with food budgets.

But it won’t offset the food squeeze brought about by stagnate household incomes over the past decade that haven’t kept pace with inflation, said Suzanne Shatila, director of Minnesota FoodShare.

There’s also a more complicated connection to food prices outpacing wages that centers around global trade and monetary policy.

Here’s a short-hand explanation of the connection.

The United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which tracks food costs, finds these goods have increased globally by 33 percent since 2009 (see accompanying graphic). The minimum wage has stayed flat since then and Minnesota’s median household income is nowhere near that rate of growth.

Here’s the main reason, as economies and wages grow in places like China, India, and Brazil their people can purchase more food. Food is a global commodity, similar to gasoline. Rising world demand, means rising global prices.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which shares responsibilities for monitoring the health and safety of food imports with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted in July last year that 15 percent of America’s table foods are imported from 150 different countries.

Now factor in currency rate changes, and you have America’s poor getting squeezed.

Federal policymakers can only do so much to change the balance of global trade in the short term. Compound this with their direct action to cut programs that feed the hungry and the burden falls more heavily on states and social service organizations. 

In May, postal workers and their volunteer allies collected more than 1 million pounds of food for Twin Cities area food shelves as part of the National Association of Letter Carriers annual “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive. People also donated $33,982 through the drive to Second Harvest Heartland, the nonprofit that serves as the wholesaler and logistics supporter for food shelves, according to an early June Minneapolis Labor Review article.

That food drive, which included church groups and their “Fill the Pews” with food campaigns, raised more than $7.5 million in food and money to support 281 Minnesota food shelves, she said.

Going forward, here are influences on food costs that will have the most profound impact on low-income households: Drought in California and the American Southwest can potentially raise prices for fruits and vegetables. Dry Southern Plains and Southwest weather will continue reducing cattle herds, raising beef and dairy prices. A widespread pig disease is also reducing pork production.

While charity and non-profits play an important role in fighting hunger, without serious federal support, it’s going to be a tough summer for may hungry Minnesotans.

(Lee Egerstrom is an economic development fellow with progressive think tank Minnesota 20/20)

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