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‘Food Insecurity’ Rate High in S.D. University Counties Brookings, Clay

FILE: Food Banks
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Home counties of the Jackrabbits and the Coyotes are among the most food insecure in South Dakota.

Brookings and Clay counties, hosts to South Dakota’s two largest colleges – South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota – have rates of food insecurity higher than the state’s average.

According to Feeding South Dakota, the food insecurity rate – the ability to access healthy food in a socially appropriate manner – is at 12.5 percent of the South Dakota population.

In Brookings County, the rate is 13.7 percent and 15.1 percent in Clay County.

How is it possible that two of South Dakota’s counties that have the state’s two Division I universities have food insecurity rates rivaling some of the state’s reservation counties?

“That’s a really good question,” said Lisa Marotz, director of cross generation ministries at Ascension Lutheran Church in Brookings who also runs Feeding Brookings. “They’re not students. Very few students come,” she added.

The attractive Brookings community can be misleading, she says.

“You see nice homes, nice this and that,” she said.

She adds that people come to Feeding Brookings from throughout the county, including Bruce, Volga, Bushnell and elsewhere.

Marortz, who for 22 years worked in food services at SDSU, says her church sees primarily near-retirement and retirement aged people, particularly singles in that age group, and young working families.

“They come in with their work shirts on,” she says. “You know where they work.”

Marotz says Feeding Brookings clients cite low wages, a lack of affordable housing and more often than not daunting medical bills as reasons why Brookings County residents seek food. She also says she sees grandparents with grandchildren in tow.

“Something went haywire,” Marotz said. “You see these grandparents having to be parents again.” And having to feed their grandchildren, on top of all the other issues the elders face.

Meanwhile, down I-29 about 115 miles in Vermillion, unlike Brookings, the Vermillion Community Food Pantry does see college students.

Food pantry director Mary Berglin says their clientele breaks down as about a quarter students, half working poor and people on disability and a final quarter composed of retirees and near-retirees 60 years old and above.

 “Vermilion has always had working poor, students with issues,” Berglin said, a decades long volunteer at the Vermillion facility. “We should have more elderly as they’re being squeezed pretty hard.”

Berglin said the Vermillion center often sees students at the ends of semesters when their money runs out as well as some international students who don’t qualify for government programs.

 And unlike Brookings, which also has a number of manufacturing and other private employers, people in the Vermillion area do not have as many employment options according to Berglin.

 “Vermillion is a tough town to find a full-time job that supports four or five people,” Berglin said. “There are not a lot of industries.”

Despite four-for-four success in winning grants last year to help fund the food pantry, Berglin is afraid her organization might see even more clients in the coming year. She’s not sure about the reasons. But the needs continue.

 “Why? I don’t know,” she said. “Right now everything is tough. Everything goes up.”

However, like Brookings, Berglin noted that rent is high in Vermillion because of the demand created by college students, putting pressure on the elderly and working poor.

In Brookings, Marotz says higher wages, more affordable housing and government programs that aren’t all or nothing and allow for a sliding scale of services to help poor people might help reduce needs.

While the Vermillion and Brookings programs have some demographic differences, both programs would like to see a future where their services are no longer needed because people are fed and eating healthy.

“It would be wonderful to put ourselves out of business,” Berglin said.

Until then, both programs will continue to provide canned goods, pasta, fresh produce, meat and even some goodies for those who need it.

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