Food surrounds Nebraska farm family, but little lands on the table Mother of 10 shuns dole, accepts hardscrabble life

December 23, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

LINCOLN COUNTY, Neb. -- The first snow of winter has laid a shock of white upon the farm, and the Woracek family will come bundled from their chores to the midday dinner. It will be peanut butter sandwiches.

For supper, said Janell Woracek, they will have pancakes.

This 46-year-old woman in ragged work clothes smiles wistfully, recalling a young nephew who came to stay awhile in the farmhouse where she raised 10 children. The boy reported to his grandmother: "Aunt 'Nel makes us say our prayers, and I don't know what for, because we haven't got much to say thanks for."

Indeed, the peanut butter comes in a food basket from a local church pantry. The charity has "really kept us from starving to death," she said.

Outside the century-old house, the place teems with food for others. There is corn in the bins and pigs in the hog house. Cattle snuffle under the snow for the stubble of stalks. Sheep and goats roam the yard; flopping chickens struggle comically with the snowfall.

Those animals are the merchandise of the farm. They must be sold to keep it going.

"We don't eat much meat," said Mrs. Woracek. "We hardly dared butcher anything because it took every penny to pay bills. When you have bills to pay, the groceries are the last thing you get. Somehow, you can make the food stretch."

Making the food stretch is a task for many rural families. Rural poor often do not eat enough and do not eat right. A study this year by the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy concluded that one in two people in rural communities had severe deficiencies in their diet.

Rural poverty wears a different face on the farm.

It may seem a mask of plenty: vast acres kneaded by expensive machines, lowing herds, towering bins of grain, Rockwellian farmhouses.

Behind that mask is deprivation. More than a half-million of the 4.6 million people who live on the farm are below the poverty line; two out of five of those families depend on food stamps. Many others do not qualify because their farm holdings look valuable on paper.

But their assets are owed to the bank. And the cash from the fall harvest must pay off the loan for last spring's seed and fertilizer so the bank will make the loan again next spring.

Farmers are always playing catch-up, and some fall short.

Their very isolation works against them. Groceries are often more expensive than in the city. Jobs are scarce and low-paying. Other bills claim more of the income: A car and gas are a necessity; utilities cost more.

There are few services to help them. Farmers, for example, find it hard to qualify for food stamps because they own land, a tractor, hogs.

Hunting, fishing and a garden can help stock a rural cupboard. But there is less game and more rules now, and little time for such activities if both mom and dad are driving 40 miles every day for a paying job.

While fewer than one in 10 rural residents is a farmer, even those who grow the food are finding their own tables bare.

Nebraska, a breadbasket state ranked second in the nation in cattle and third in corn production, has more than 200 food pantries in rural counties. Four years ago, this mostly volunteer network gave food to 60,000 people. Last year they served nearly twice as many.

And these are not freeloaders.

"Rural families do tend to wait until they are really out of food to ask for help," said JoAnne Komenda, coordinator of the Nebraska Pantry Network.

"There are families in severe crisis out there."

Mrs. Woracek does not comfortably take charity food. She is a proud woman, accustomed to relying on herself. Although the food is free, she insists on paying something when she gets it. She has avoided going to the food pantry in nearby Arnold, she conceded, when she had no money to make a donation.

"It makes me feel bad that I can't do it myself," she said. "But sometimes you have to adjust your attitude and swallow a lump."

Her "tribe," as she calls her children, are her priority. And her one wealth. She has sent five to work their way through college. Four have graduated so far. Her younger five seem destined to follow.

The years have worn on Mrs. Woracek. She looks older than 46. Her brown, shoulder-length hair is streaked with gray. She has sharp features, a tanned face, a straight nose. Her hands are a workman's hands: scratched and cracked on the back, with short fingernails.

The grunt work of farming allows no primping pretensions. Mrs. Woracek has none. She wears a torn coat over a tattered vest. Her blue jeans are shot with holes. Pliers stick through a back pocket. She has a high, crackling voice, but she laughs like a man: a full, hearty laugh, often born from a remark she made at her own expense.

When Alvin Woracek died of kidney cancer eight years ago, he left his widow with 10 children ages 2 to 18, a scraggly farm and mountainous debts.

A financial counselor came out from the extension office to pore over her books, and said, "No matter how hard you push this pencil, you can't make it. Throw in your hat and declare bankruptcy."

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