Friday, September 4, 2015

08/26/2015 at 4:02am

Sarina Otaibi

A temporary job attracted Sarina Otaibi to move to Granite Falls, a town of about 2,900 in southwest Minnesota.

She expected to stay about 10 months.

Three and a half years later, Otaibi is permanently employed by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), an environmental organization that focuses on climate, energy and water issues. In her spare time, she won a seat on the city council, got elected president of the local historical association, and serves on a statewide preservation organization.

And she also bought a decommissioned church that she plans to convert to community use.

The progression from visitor to resident seemed natural to Otaibi.

“I just became more a part of the town, involved in different organizations,” she said.

Otaibi had a head start in putting down roots in Granite Falls. Her mother grew up in the prairie town. But Otaibi was raised in Saudi Arabia and was living in Washington, D.C., before her move to Minnesota.

Part of a series of interviews with people who will be participating in the National Rural Assembly, September 9-11, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Read the first part of the series, a talk with Timothy Lampkin of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

With a passion for community and historic preservation, Otaibi said she thinks rural people have a harder time keeping their issues in front of funders and policy makers because of distance. She hopes her second National Rural Assembly (she attended the 2013 Assembly) will help her connect with like-minded rural advocates.

Otaibi hopes to convert a decommissioned church into a community meeting space.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
Our region of Minnesota is kind of a lot of small towns. It’s prairie, with amazing river valleys. I’m lucky enough to live in the Minnesota River valley. When you get up out of the valleys you see a lot of corn and soybeans. …

My world is environmental work. [Water contamination] is due to big agriculture, and their relationship to water. Everyone would point to different [water] issues I guess…. There is an article in City Pages that does a great job at capturing the issue thoroughly, in case folks would like to learn more.

Another issue I would identify here is empty storefronts in the small downtowns. And old downtown buildings get torn down because of lack of money or use or capacity to save them… I’m a preservationist. But I don’t really like to focus on the negatives a lot. I don’t like to say we’re in a population decline. I don’t think that’s true. I think small towns look different as the world changes in general.

08/24/2015 at 9:41pm

Photo courtesy Co-Mo Electric Cooperative Workers roll out fiber-optic cable to hang on Co-Mo Electric poles as part of the fiber-to-the-home Internet, TV and telephone project.The electric co-operatives ought to be a biggter part of efforts to provide broadband to harder-to-reach rural areas.

Once upon a time, telegraphs and kerosene lamps were state of the art.

Telephones and 110-volt wall outlets were the next big thing.

Now we have the Internet.

Costs of hard-wired improvements are just too high for profit-driven development in rural America, but Missouri has been a hotbed for rural electric co-operatives. Our abundant underground supply of coal made us a natural for coal-fired electricity generation. Power plants were built conveniently on top of coal beds.

Those co-op jobs were good for rural Missourians, a lot of whom were farmers who gained electricity in the bargain. 

The whole thing was turned on its head when someone figured out our high-sulfur coal was bad for the planet. Now we generate about 83% of our electricity needs from coal hauled in by rail from Wyoming.

But co-ops are still at the seat of power in Missouri because they hire local people to keep up electrical grids across the state. They have a reputation for service as they preserve cooperative principles and leave the door open for the next big thing in rural America.

I'm talking about fiber – not dietary fiber from farm-raised fruit and vegetables, but fiber optics capable of moving rural Internet connections at the speed of light.

That's what's happening at one Missouri electrical co-op where they've turned part of central Missouri into its own hotspot.

CO-MO Connect, a holding company of CO-MO REC headquartered in Tipton, Missouri, provides Internet and cable TV service to 42 Zip codes and over 38,000 people in central Missouri – towns like Tipton, Versailles, Sunrise Beach, Gravois Mills, and Warsaw.

08/24/2015 at 7:15am

Scars By: Katie Wills from PAGE.
Digital projects combine culturally appropriate storytelling skills with advanced technology training, says Deborah Hicks, founder of PAGE.

Deborah Hicks grew up in Rosman, North Carolina (pop. 576), as a self-professed “small town, mountain, working-class girl.” 

Despite her eventual academic achievements, Hicks struggled throughout college. 

“I didn’t even know how to apply,” she says.

She persevered and after graduating from high school went to college. She earned a doctorate degree from Harvard, taught at the university level, published three books, and is now a research scholar at Duke University, where she runs the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education (PAGE) initiative

In 2010, Hicks was teaching in Cincinnati when she decided to move back to her home state of North Carolina and form the PAGE program to give Appalachian girls the tools she didn’t have when she began her college career.

“I wanted to found an organization that would support girls like me,” Hicks says. “Girls who are growing up in this specific kind of rural poverty but don’t have opportunities for educational enrichment, for summer programs, for year-round opportunities that would help them succeed and go on to college.”

Deborah Hicks.

The PAGE initiative is a four-year program for girls in rural Madison County, North Carolina, just north of Asheville along the border with Tennessee.  Each summer, 50 girls enter PAGE the summer before sixth grade and continue through middle school.  The goal is to prepare the girls for success in high school and help them get ready to apply to and attend college. 

The intensive six-week summer programs focus on digital education. The girls learn advanced skills by creating digital storytelling pieces about their lives.  Using storytelling helps make the program fun, but Hicks says it’s also tied to the girls’ roots, as storytelling is an important part of Appalachian culture.

08/21/2015 at 7:13am

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness The National Alliance to End Homelessness categorized service areas by geography and found that the homelessness rate for urban service areas was about twice the rate for rural service areas. The chart shows the number of homeless per 10,000 residents in each geographic category.

After living much of the year in and out of an Eastern Kentucky hospital for a series of severe illnesses, Jeffery “Vinny” Foulon found himself in tough spot.

“I had no place to go,” said the Indiana native who had moved to Hazard, Kentucky, a town of about 5,200 in the mountainous coalfields. “I was staying in a house that actually had no heat. I just ended up in a bad situation.” 

With a referral from the hospital, Foulon found emergency housing at the Corner Haven Crisis Center, a social-service agency that serves a rural clientele with emergency housing, food, and other services.

Unlike many rural people who are homeless, Foulon had no family or friends to rely on for interim housing. While his situation was a little outside the norm, he was far from alone in his need for help with accommodations.

“You could say everybody has a different story on how we all wound up in the same place,” Foulon said.

Because of its unpredictable and unstable nature, homelessness is hard to measure.  Though frequently associated with urban areas, the issue affects rural communities, as well.

CHCC opened in 1977 as a food pantry. Its work has expanded over the years to meet changing needs.

08/19/2015 at 9:32pm

Photo by Shawn Poynter/Rural Archive Holly Beach, Louisiana, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago this month.

People who live in hurricane-prone areas have a lot on their minds this time of year – evacuation routes, emergency supplies, property protection. Changes in communication technology mean they have one more thing to think about: ensuring that their primary telephone connection operates, even when the power is off.

The old, copper-wire telephone landlines many of us are accustomed to can work even when household electricity is off. That’s because the electricity to power them flows through the same wires that carry the phone signal. If the phone is connected to the network, it automatically has power.

But this isn’t true for the emerging phone systems that use wireless and the Internet as the network backbone. Mobile phones will work only as long as the battery holds a charge, assuming nearby cell towers are operating. And newer Internet-based phone systems – like those provided through AT&T’s U-verse of Comcast’s Xfinity – won’t work without household power or a backup power. The electronic components that connect those phones to the Internet – using voice over Internet protocol or VOIP – need a separate power supply. If the Internet modem doesn't work, neither does the phone.

The problem is that many residents living in areas vulnerable to hurricanes don’t know this change is happening. Telephone providers don’t always tell their consumers about these changes. Consumers don’t know what to expect from new fiber or wireless technologies. And telecommunications companies aren’t necessarily providing affordable backup power options.

Instead, telephone providers are letting their copper lines rot, which causes erodes call quality. When their customers call to complain, a representative upsells them on a “better” service such as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) or wireless. If you are a diligent consumer with Internet access who understands technology, you can investigate the benefits and setbacks of the new service on the telephone provider’s website.

When a hurricane makes landfall, the communications network is critical for public safety officials, emergency responders, and residents. This is when the scruples of your telephone provider are judged – did they explain the reliability of your new phone service? Did they inform you that you need a backup battery? Did they make the battery easily available and affordable enough, especially if you’re on a tight budget?

08/18/2015 at 8:58pm

Photo by Aaron Hautala Mountain bikers scale the top of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby and Ironton, Minnesota.

They say riding a bike is easy once you learn how. I’m not so sure about that. Several thousand country miles on bicycles didn’t seem to matter much the first time I shot down the jagged trails of Cuyuna on a fat-tire mountain bike.

The curving, sloping trails allowed tremendous speed in remarkably tight spaces. Saw-toothed shelves of low-grade iron rock sailed past my right ear while 30-year poplar trees brushed my left shoulder. I relished the chance to attack the iron-stained red hills because it seemed like the only part of the ride I controlled; the rest was an exercise in survival.

This was like no physical activity – certainly no bike ride – I had ever experienced before. It was exhilarating. As a young GenXer/old Millennial I would crudely compare the ride to a most excellent video game. That’s exactly the feeling that leaders in the small towns of the Cuyuna Iron Range in north central Minnesota hope will draw new people and create a stable economy. 

“Most people who come here leave with an amazing, dynamic story,” said Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew. “We’re not here to be good for Crow Wing County, or good for Minnesota. We’re here to be one of the top 10 in the world. We have the opportunity. We have the landscape.”

The Lay of the Land

The Cuyuna Range was one of three major iron ranges in Northern Minnesota that supplied the war efforts and economic booms of 20th century America. The men of my family mined all of them. My great-grandfather and grandfather worked the Cuyuna, helping close it down in the late 1950s. The Vermilion Range near Ely closed in the 1960s. The much larger Mesabi Iron Range, where I was born and still live, remains a major iron ore producer but struggles with the economic booms and busts common to the mining industry.

“The red dirt is our signature,” said Hautala of the distinct iron ore dust that covers nearly every Cuyuna trail. “People love it. People rub it on their faces just to have it. I’d never give up our mining heritage of this area. It’s the soul. It’s why people want to come to Cuyuna. Now we have tools we never had before so now is the time to use this area for recreation.”

The Cuyuna includes the adjacent cities of Crosby and Ironton, the small village of Cuyuna and a handful of small towns, all located within a few miles of one another. This once-sleepy section of the North Woods is just 20 minutes from Brainerd, and two hours from Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth, Minnesota; Fargo, North Dakota; and my home on the Mesabi, respectively. 

Hautala, who is also a marketing professional, and other local leaders think that strategic location will help attract people to the region’s former mining haunts for biking, paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, and camping — first tourists, then eventually young entrepreneurs and professionals. The goal is something none of Minnesota’s iron ranges have ever really had: a sustainable, renewable local economy.

08/18/2015 at 6:44am

Though he first entered the public consciousness through his cookbooks, Mark Bittman has become a thought leader with his New York Times columns on food politics. These days, he’s widely regarded in the food movement as an expert in food policy and nutrition, with his column serving as a benchmark – and catalyst – for the central issues of the movement.

With A Bone to Pick, an anthology of columns from his four years at the Times, Bittman provides a survey of his food policy analysis. The book’s wide array of topics includes corn subsidies, federal nutrition programs, soda tax policy, dietary recommendations, and more. These short essays range from quippy advice on how much butter to consume to an explanation of how the FDA regulates the use of antibiotics in livestock.

A single theme unites these distinct issues: Bittman’s belief that with better policy and less processed food, we can reform what he calls the “Standard American Diet” (an intentional, if unsubtle, acronym). Read together, his articles are a strong indictment of the way our food is regulated, grown, processed, and distributed. But the collection also reveals Bittman’s disheartening lack of analysis about how, exactly, the American public came to find itself in the midst of such a widespread – and growing – agricultural and dietary crisis. Bittman’s proclivity to position the eater as a powerful decision-maker and federal food policy reform as the most effective path forward obscures much of the reality of who holds the power in today’s international food system.

Read a Bittman column without a background in food policy, and you’ll likely conclude there are only two major actors determining how our food system operates: the eater and the government. To be sure, both parties play essential roles. The Farm Bill, a package of federal food and farming laws renewed every 5 years by Congress, shapes agricultural activity from subsidies to nutrition programs. What an eater chooses to consume, meanwhile, can encourage better farming practices, or sanction the latest in Doritos innovation. But this simple worldview is dangerously incomplete and fails to acknowledge the power players lurking between the eater and the government.

For a growing number of food activists and scholars, those power players are easy to spot: they’re monopolistic, multinational corporations. There are moments when A Bone to Pick considers the broad ramifications of such corporate power. For instance, Bittman’s piece on Shuanghui’s purchase of Smithfield, “On Becoming China’s Farm Team,” highlights how international corporate control of American resources is a growing danger in our agricultural landscape. He rightly identifies the Smithfield deal as “a land and water grab,” that “transfers the environmental damage of the large-scale pork production from China to the United States.” That strong language is warranted, given the size and scope of Shuanghui’s control over the international pork market. The effects of Shuanghui’s influence will be felt by American pork producers, employees of Smithfield and its subsidiaries, pig grain farmers, bacon enthusiasts, and many others along the food chain. Bittman’s concern is well-placed.

Such analysis indicates that Bittman understands the dangers inherent in our incredibly consolidated food industry, where companies like Smithfield, Nestle, Monsanto, and Dean Foods, just to name a few, have outsize influence on what appears on our television screens, in our cupboards, and within the USDA’s dietary guidelines. But it also reveals little awareness that such unrestrained corporate power was not always a hallmark of our food system, and that our current reality has an enormous impact on the eater’s control over her own diet. And though Bittman on occasion acknowledges the existence of these behemoths, he rarely discusses their influence on the contents of our kitchen cupboards. Worse, when Bittman does address corporate power, his tone edges toward resignation. “You can’t blame corporations for trying to profit by any means necessary, even immoral ones: It’s their nature,” he writes in “Parasites, Killing Their Host.” That’s not exactly a rallying cry for reform.

In the absence of a critical evaluation of corporate power in our food system, Bittman must look elsewhere to understand how corn subsidies and crappy school lunches became the status quo. And in searching for culprits for why our national waistline is growing and food quality deteriorating, he all too often points his finger at the eater. “The power lies within you” to “fix the food system in your world today,” he writes in “(Only) Two Rules for a Good Diet.” If consumers only bought more antibiotic-free meat and avoided the soda machine, he implies, they would, all on their own, begin to reverse many of today’s worst health and environmental crises.