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How do we let kids starve to death in Iowa, where food is our identity?


KYLE MUNSON   | The Des Moines Register

An Iowa in which parents punish their children by starving them to death is not the Iowa food story I’ve known. 

It’s the antithesis of the classic Iowan identity that makes us proud. You know, the one where we boast about how we’re a self-reliant agricultural powerhouse. Where we're literally surrounded by millions of acres food. (A lot of it ends up as corn syrup or ethanol or goes to China, but stick with me here.) Where the quintessential farm kid memory, even if the family was dirt poor, includes plenty of food on the table because ma and pa grew it.

But that nostalgic scene is far removed from gruesome cases now in the headlines in which two different 16-year-old girls, Natalie Finn of West Des Moines and Sabrina Ray of Perry, allegedly were ruthlessly abused by their adoptive families. The girls were starved as part of their torture.

My fellow columnist, Watchdog Lee Rood, has been writing about these awful cases and raised the question of whether we’re really doing all we can to protect Iowa’s 4,260 kids in foster care. In what appears less than coincidence, the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services that oversees protective services for children retired in May — a month after he insisted that he had no plans to do so. 

The barrage of news stories and rumblings in state government seem to suggest that our attention is being focused on a horrible modern reality where we don't live up to "Iowa nice."

Last year DHS identified more than 13,600 abused Iowans, based on a portion of complaints to its abuse hotline that were validated by assessments in person. 

Sometimes it feels as if the statistics don’t matter; we become numb to them. Maybe the hollow faces of emaciated teens are harder to ignore because we must stare them in the eyes.  

Here in Iowa we prefer to revere our happy memories of food in childhood. When we think of kids starving, we assume they're victims of political oppression or a natural disaster in some Third World country.  

Here in Iowa we focus on favorite recipes. We still smell the Thanksgiving turkey from Grandma's bustling kitchen. 

When a neighbor dies, we lavish their mourning family with casseroles and other homemade dishes. We make new friends over each other’s wacky Jell-O salads at potluck dinners. 

Our notion of Iowa food is not a teenager found dead, a waif of 56 pounds, while her parents are vacationing at Disney World. 

I can’t relate to these horrible headlines, and I know that makes me fortunate and privileged. 

My metaphorical plate is full with stereotypical Iowa memories of food — of being nurtured by food as part of an emotionally supportive childhood.

My mom still calls herself a “food pusher”: She always makes more than enough and forces friends and family not only to eat seconds but to take some home. 

I remember childhood dishes by their family nicknames: “Bolt cookies” were the big, fat, soft sugar cookies that got their name from the time I bit into one and crunched on a bolt that had jiggled out of the mixer and into the batter. 

“The Next Best Thing to Robert Redford” was a chocolaty pudding dessert that was all the rage among Iowa moms in the 1980s.

I remember all our family rituals built around food: Gathering fresh eggs from chickens as they tried to peck my tiny hands. My parents planting dozens of heads of cabbage each year to make sauerkraut. 

Plowing up our own potatoes. Sitting around the farmyard to peel the sticky strands of silk off fresh ears of sweetcorn. 

I wish that Natalie and Sabrina might have had only happy memories of sharing food with their families. Not that it would be the death of them. 

My “bad” food memory is a joke compared to what we’re talking about: I still remember the night my parents forced me to eat all my asparagus. I hated the taste and texture and gagged on it. But they shoved it in the oven and pulled it back out later for me to finish. 

If you're like me and that's closer to your reality than what happened to Natalie and Sabrina, I guess that begs the question: Do you feel compelled to do anything to help these kids? 

According to the USDA, about 18 percent of kids in the U.S. live in a household without good access to enough food — what government calls "food insecurity."   

Meanwhile, most of us have the luxury of worshiping each year's new array of fried foods at the Iowa State Fair. Or of worrying about our nation's obesity epidemic. 

Food as a warm community ritual is enshrined even at my workplace: The Register newsroom throughout my entire career has had what we call the “dining desk” where we gather to share food or staff milestones. 

So we may have a short window of time here where we're actually talking about starved teens before we get back to our everyday business of gorging ourselves. Unfortunately I don't have easy answers. 

I did take note of a perceptive op-ed from northeast Iowa blogger Sandra Reicks. Building on Rood's reporting, she zeroes in on what she considers a "lethal combination" in these cases: Subsidies paid to adoptive parents of foster kids help provide an incentive for some bad actors. And then abuse goes undetected for too long when those kids suffer from lax oversight because they're home-schooled. 

"Isolation plus money equals a fraud that can kill," she writes. 

That's still not an easy answer. But at the very least we seem to have gathered around the table to discuss the fate of kids like Natalie and Sabrina. 

Because I would love to see an Iowa where bad food memories from childhood were only about eating asparagus. Not starving.

Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or kmunson@dmreg.com. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).

2017 Jun 1