Poverty is better than it was in South Dakota, new data suggests, but people who work with food banks and food pantries see worrisome signs that people are still struggling to meet basic needs.

South Dakota is home to some of the poorest counties in America, with the state’s official poverty rate averaging 14.5 percent from 2009 to 2011.   

A new poverty rate released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, known as the Supplemental Poverty Measure, averaged a new rate of 11 percent, a decrease of about 28,000 South Dakotans.

This rate extends the official poverty measure by taking into account the benefits from many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals. The new poverty measure more accurately reflects contemporary social and economic realities and government policy, according to the South Dakota Budget & Policy Project.

While the percentage of impoverished residents has been lowered, several local organizations in central South Dakota have not seen any decrease in the need for services and assistance provided to low-income individuals – especially when it comes to food.

Laura White, executive director of the Pierre Area Referral Service, said that the Pierre/Fort Pierre Food Pantry has seen a significant increase in usage since the 2011 flood. Whether families are still hurting from that devastation or are just more aware of the pantry is unclear, but the rise in pantry traffic has been noticeable.

“Numbers for the food pantry for the past month alone were approximately 150 people,” White said. “We are seeing an average of one to three new clients each week.”

Russ Hofeldt, central operations manager of the Feeding South Dakota food bank, has also noticed that the need for food in rural areas is still fairly widespread in the state. The food bank, located in Pierre, distributes items to partners in 24 counties in central South Dakota, such as the Pierre/Fort Pierre food pantry.

The average food insecurity rate in South Dakota is 11.7 percent, with some counties reaching 16 or 17 percent, said Hofeldt. A “Map the Meal Gap” study done by Feeding America each year estimates that in South Dakota, more than 16 million meals are still needed to feed food insecure residents.

“We still have some of the poorest counties here in South Dakota, and one in every eight individuals is food insecure, meaning that they don’t quite know where their next meal is coming from,” Hofeldt said. “One in every five children experiences food insecurity, and nearly 40 percent of the state’s school-age children qualify for free and reduced lunch programs.”

To help address this need, a backpack program run by PARS provides a backpack each week filled with fresh produce, easy-to-prepare meals and snacks for students in need. With the help of donations and volunteers, PARS buys, packs and distributes the backpacks for the program, which serves approximately 315 in the Fort Pierre and Pierre Public Elementary schools, according to Laura White. Many other organizations statewide also have some version of the backpack program to help address hunger at a young age.

“We give them the backpacks to get them through the weekend,” Hofeldt said. “Some of these kids might be in a situation where they’re getting fed at school, but when they go home for the weekend, they’re not getting very good nutrition.”

In partnership with Feeding South Dakota, PARS also runs a senior food box program, which services 60 senior citizens – almost double the enrollment from the beginning of September.

“There are 19.2 percent of South Dakota citizens 50 and older living below the poverty level,” Hofeldt said. “We package and distribute, on a monthly basis, just over 1,100 food boxes out to our partner agencies throughout the central part of the state.”

As the income gap widens between the wealthy and poor families of South Dakota, these services offer much needed relief. The state has experienced the second fastest-growing income gap in the nation between the 1990s and the mid-2000s, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute.

With the help of donations and volunteers, PARS will have distributed 625 meals to families in need by Dec. 17, including 300 Thanksgiving meals and 325 Christmas meals.

While these numbers are encouraging, they also show a persistent need for assistance, at least in central South Dakota.

“We’ve distributed just under 1 million pounds of food out of Pierre to date in 2012,” Hofeldt said. “About 90,000 pounds of the food that was donated went right into Hughes and Stanley counties, [meaning] almost 71,000 meals delivered to Hughes and Stanley counties so far this year. Last year, as an organization, Feeding South Dakota hit an all-time high of 12.1 million pounds distributed. It’s great that we were able to do that, but it’s also very alarming.”

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