Bearing the green burden

Environmental impact widens the gap between the rich and the poor
Thursday, April 10, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:45 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With a growing number of headlines devoted to environmental concerns, many of us appease our consciences by purchasing organic fruit and turning off lights. But global warming and other environmental issues have not forced most to make living adjustments. Instead, those living in poverty are bearing the burden more often than not. When it comes to the allocation of dwindling resources, the low-income demographic tends to get the short end of the stick as spiking food and energy bills translate to major lifestyle changes. Although everyone is complaining, rising costs may be easier to handle if more income is coming in.

The cost of feeling hot and cold

The price for heating and cooling homes continues to rise, but the poor tend not to have very energy-efficient homes. Additionally, they often lack the funds to repair holes in walls and windows through which heat can escape.

The Central Missouri Action Agency has responded locally with a weatherization program. It sends experts to run-down homes to determine where heat is leaking. The agency then provides the tools and labor to fix the infrastructure, says Angela Hirsch, the community services director. But government funding provides for less than one percent of those eligible for the program, says executive director Darin Preis, and it is investigating how to fund more energy audits.

When designing low-income housing, some government agencies often don’t consult the families that are actually going to be living in them. The families living in these energy-inefficient homes often have little motivation to fix them on their own because the home is somebody else’s vision. Says Hirsch, “The problem with social services is in the last 40 years, people have said, ‘You poor people, this is what you need. I’m going to give it to you.’”

Nutritious food to put on the table

Environmental upheaval has manifested itself in erratic weather patterns. As local farmers fight to sustain their crops until they’re ready for sale, unpredictable or unseasonable weather is diminishing their production. In the Midwest last spring, warm weather came early, but it was interrupted over Easter by a freeze that decimated many regional crops. Wheat and corn were some of the most damaged in the area, according to the National Climatic Data Center, but peaches, grapes, and apples were also hit hard in Missouri. Food had to be trucked into town from faraway places, which increases prices.

The unseasonable ice storm that swept through Missouri last year left local fruit crops inedible.

Director of the Central Missouri Food Bank Peggy Kirkpatrick says recent changes in weather patterns have caused fruit and vegetable prices to rise. Consequently, the food bank received fewer food donations to pass on to those in need. “We always get fresh apples donated in the springtime,” Kirkpatrick says. “We didn’t get any last year.”

Now, with Missourians balking at gasoline prices well over $3 a gallon, low-income families might be forced to choose: buy gasoline to get to the grocery store, or buy food somewhere else. “People are buying groceries at the gas station: soda, deli meat,” Preis says. “It’s not healthy … but that’s what they have access to.”

In order to make a difference in the access low-income families have to nutritious fresher food, increasing local production must be a part of the effort to live a more healthy lifestyle. “We need to be investing in farmers markets and local gardens where people can grow their own tomatoes and vegetables,” Preis says. “We need to make sure people have better access to food that’s healthy and a heck of a lot less expensive.”

Affordable options to getting around

Families struggling to put food on the table might not have the money to purchase an energy-efficient car or to fuel it as gasoline prices sweep upward.

The alternative is public transportation, but Hirsch says that can still be expensive for families because bus fares might increase with rising gas prices.

GetAbout Columbia is a federally funded program that is trying to expand non-motorized trails in Columbia. The program is planning to build bike lanes along many major roads, such as Ninth Street and Forum Boulevard, says GetAbout Columbia employee Corrie Flaker.

Because they aren’t specifically targeted for relief by this program, low-income people trying to get to work might be left with no option but to pay higher fares because transportation operators face higher operating costs. The solution — change the system.

“When people are in crises and come to us for assistance for help paying their utility bill or rent, we help them out,” Preis says. “But it’s sort of a Band-Aid. It’s not looking at bigger picture of why they are in poverty in the first place.”

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