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Food, hunger issues chewed on at local meeting

Karen Pooley, the treasurer of the Mitchell Food Pantry, spoke about the need for healthier eating and better food choices during a discussion on hunger and food at the United Church of Christ Congregational Church Thursday night. (Tom Lawrence/Republic)

There's plenty of food. That's not the problem. Ensuring everyone has equal access to food, and trying to get people to eat healthy foods -- now there's the problem.

It's a big one, and getting worse, people who attended a meeting in Mitchell Thursday night were told.

"Everyone can do something," said Ron Fuchs, of Mitchell. "We can all do something." Fuchs said his health is poor, and that prevents him from working full-time, keeping his income at a low level. But he said while he appreciates the people and groups who assist those in need in the community, he also wants to do his part to help.

That's something everyone can do, Fuchs said.

Some things are painfully clear. Americans are eating poorly, gaining weight and losing their health. The poor have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and more and more people don't know how to shop, cook or prepare food that is good for them.

Time at the Table, a Mitchell nonprofit devoted to bringing food and the community together, hosted a showing of the documentary "A Place at the Table," as well as a post-film discussion, at the Mitchell Congregational United Church of Christ. About 30 people attended, and most stayed afterward to engage in the discussion.

"I think we have got to change our mindset," said Billy Mawhiney, of Mitchell, the founder and executive director of Time at the Table.

Mawhiney said many people need to be taught to select healthy, tasty food, how to prepare it, and how to stretch their budget to ensure they eat properly.

Karen Pooley, the treasurer of the Mitchell Food Pantry, said there is some good news.

"People in Mitchell are very generous," Pooley said. "There's always food in the Food Pantry. It's packaged, it's canned, but there is food."

She said efforts to provide fresh food are finally paying off, however.

"It's taken a long time, but the Food Pantry now has a walk-in cooler," Pooley said. "It's something we can do, and it's an improvement."

Megan Vilhauer, a dietician who works at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, said too many people make poor food choices.

"Why doesn't anyone eat vegetables here?" Vilhauer asked rhetorically. "I don't get that."

South Dakota is 51st in the nation, behind all other states and the District of Columbia, in the amount of vegetables consumed by adults.

People in this state stay true to their rural roots, and love meat and potatoes, people agreed.

But she said there are other factors. People buy pop and chips because they don't think they make enough money to pay for enough food for a balanced meal.

"Junk will always be cheaper," Vilhauer said. There is a grave cost for those choices, panelists said. The epidemic of obesity, and other health concerns, are directly tied to Americans' food choices.

Mawhiney teaches classes to kids on cooking and preparing healthy food. Pooley said that gives her hope, since the kids may teach their parents how to eat better.

"It's easier to teach kids," she said. Mawhiney said Americans also waste too much food. He said 40 percent of the food produced in the country ends up in the trash. It's part of the complex, frustrating problem with food and Americans, he said.

The movie was a blend of interviews with the famous and powerful with scenes of people struggling to pay for food, get access to healthy food, and learning how to prepare and enjoy fruits, vegetables and other, healthier foods.

Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, who has been an advocate for alleviating hunger for 30 years, and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., were two of the people who spoke in the film.

McGovern said he lived for a week on the allotment given to food stamp recipients to get a better understanding of the issue.

"Every day is a struggle to get by," said McGovern, who is no relation to the late South Dakota senator, a famed advocate for food for the poor and needy, but worked in his office and spoke during his funeral in October.

The documentary stated that 50 million Americans live in hunger or face food uncertainty. Many of them are children.

America dealt with poverty and hunger in the late 1960s, and after 15 years, had the problem on the run, the film stated.

But a change in government priorities, and public attitudes, led to an upswing in food issues.

"If another country was doing this to our kids, we'd be at war," Bridges said in the film. "It's just insane. And it doesn't have to be this way."

Dave Mitchell, of Mitchell, spoke as the film ended, and said if enough people raised their concerns, and their voices, politicians would listen.

"There is still this huge mythology that charity is the answer, and it can solve the problem," Mitchell said. "And it's not."

Instead, the people at the meeting agreed, it will take a shared effort between the people and the government to provide more equitable wages, better access to healthy foods, and the knowledge and desire to eat them.

Martin Avery, a part-time minister who is attending theology school in Denver, said the public must pressure politicians to support better food policies. Avery said it is "essential" for people of faith to demand that from elected officials.

"At least make sure it's on the agenda of the political party you support," he said.