The Ottumwa Courier

February 26, 2014

Taking aim against hunger

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Aiming without shooting isn't going to bring a hunter dinner. Shooting without aiming can be a whole lot worse.

"We have to strike a balance between research and action," said Desiree Johnson, director of the United Way of Wapello County.

Johnson is now part of a large group of agencies working together to fight hunger in Wapello County. Johnson said school teachers are actually seeing hungry kids trying to study with their tummies growling. More than half of Ottumwa kids, she said, fall into that category.

This group is not a new agency; it's more like an all-star team composed of one or two representatives from each agency.

Members of the consortium include a core "working group," including SIEDA Community Action, United Way, American Home Finding, Food Bank of Southern Iowa, Salvation Army, Hy-Vee, Lord's Cupboard, ISU Extension, Market on Main, Wapello County Public Health, Ottumwa's First United Methodist Church, Ottumwa school district, business owner Stacie Latham and Wapello County Central Point of Contact.

The plan for the "food security consortium" is to determine a specific topic, deliberate on it, then take action. That plan allows for research so the group can aim and fire at hunger successfully. Many participants had already pointed out lessons they've learned the hard way: nonstop talk about a problem doesn't resolve it.

To prevent that, the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation has found and hired a consultant.

"My job is to make sure something happens," said Amber Payne of Payne Enterprises.

And because the various "members" of the consortium have other projects to handle, Payne has been instructed to "take ownership" of the initiative. She hopes to have some action plans in place by 2015.

Wapello County is the third most food insecure county in the state, Payne said, but that's not as simple as it may sound. For example, she warned, don't confuse being food insecure with being poor. Enough money for a sufficient amount of food may not benefit someone with no transportation, for example. Someone in an expensive home may be overextended or may suddenly have had their work hours reduced.

Payne said there are a lot more variables that contribute to whether someone will be food insecure, which is why part of her job will be to remind the coalition that their solutions must be multi-faceted.

Some hungry people are isolated. Some who deserve and qualify for assistance don't know they can get help. Some may be embarrassed to accept help. Others may have sufficient money for groceries, but with no knowledge of how to cook or what's healthy, they end up wasting money eating out three times a day.

And yes, said Johnson and Payne, working out what has to be done, where, with whom and how is going to require some talk before taking action.

"We want to create research-based strategies," said Johnson.

"[Strategies] that pertain to our community," agreed Payne.

Then comes action, they said.

"During our first meeting, we were able to identify [community hunger] problems pretty quickly, but when it came to finding a strategy [to solve problems], that's when the wheels came off," said Payne.

A well-known researcher will be coming to Ottumwa in order to "map" information on a block-by-block basis. The researchers will use existing data, like Census figures and County Health records.

"That data creates a picture," Payne said.

"Then [they] are are going to help us with a strategic action plan," said Johnson.

The picture should allow the coalition to put their resources where they are needed most. It also lets them use the correct resource for that area.

But they want more people to help determine the needs and possible answers. What they want, the two said, is feedback from the community. The consortium can even help resolve transportation or child care needs for those who want to participate in "listening circles."

So how will they know if they've succeeded in decreasing hunger locally?

Payne said they worked together to define what "food security" means in Wapello County.

"Food security is access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle," she said.

— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark