GRAND FORKS, N.D. - After a long streak of boasting one of the nation's lowest rates of children living in poverty, Minnesota has been "slipping" in recent years compared to the rest of the nation, said research director Kara Arzamendia with the Children's Defense Fund.
About 9 percent of the state's children lived in poverty in 2000, but the number shot up to 15 percent by 2010, the latest data available. That year, about 192,000 of the state's under-18 population lived in households with incomes less than $22,314 for a family of four.
"Things have been going in the wrong direction," Arzamendia said.
That was one of the findings in the latest Kids Count report released Wednesday. For more than two decades, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has released the state-by-state data book that tracks several factors in children's health and well-being and aims to raise awareness of the issues now facing children across the nation.
High poverty rates
Now in its 23rd year, the latest Minnesota Kids Count for the first time divided the state into 13 economic development clusters of counties to get a better sense of the issues facing particular regions.
Region 2, which includes Beltrami, Clearwater, Hubbard, Lake of the Woods and Mahnomen counties, posted the worst performance in the state in many factors, including the highest rate of children living in poverty (26 percent) and the most students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches (58 percent).
The region also had the lowest median family income. At $50,330, it was well below the $55,422 median income statewide.
More than 10 percent of children lacked health insurance in 2009.
The region's overall performance was dragged down by economic issues in several counties, including a nearly 34-percent rate of children living in poverty in Mahnomen County -- the highest in the state. Nearly 30 percent of Beltrami County children lived in poverty in 2010, as did about one-quarter of children in Clearwater County.
Middle of pack
The northwest corner of the state, including Kittson, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau counties clustered together as Region 1, fared better with many of its indicators of children's health and well-being falling somewhere in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the state.
About 14 percent of the counties' children lived in poverty, while just less than 9 percent lacked health insurance. But the region's median income of $58,330 was higher than the state average, and Region 1 posted the lowest number of children arrested for a serious crime of 5.2 per 1,000 in 2010.
In Polk County, about 15.6 percent of children lived in poverty, and manager Cristina Campos said the growing ranks of those in poverty have pushed demand for free grocery items from the East Grand Forks Food Shelf to its highest level.
The food shelf distributed more than 230,000 pounds of meat, dairy products and dry goods to 1,035 families last year, helping feed 1,811 children -- 50 percent more than in 2009.
"There is more need for the families now than ever before," Campos said.
A noteworthy finding in northwest Minnesota was the high rate of children living in so-called "food deserts," defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a low-income area where a substantial part of the population lives more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store.
Arzamendia said it is a "huge" issue because it forces families to drive long distances to get the cheaper, more nutritious food offered at a grocery store rather than nearby convenience stores. It also can become a problem for those in poverty who have to keep up with the extra gas, maintenance and insurance to keep their vehicle on the road to get basic supplies.
"It can be a real strain for families," she said.
Eighteen percent of children living in the north-central Region 2 lived in a food desert last year, while 33 percent of Region 1's children in northwestern Minnesota were far away from access to a grocery store.
But residents of Warren, Minn., a town of about 1,600 in Marshall County, still can stock up on the basics at Dale's Foods, a full grocery store offering a meat department, produce aisle, deli and bakery.
Manager Jim Ranstrom said the store draws in customers from as far as 15 miles away. Some nearby towns still have convenience stores, he said, but smaller towns increasingly are losing the supermarkets that used to be common sights.
"There was a time when there were probably two supermarkets and three convenience stores in Warren, but now, most of the towns our size have just one store," he said. "There just isn't the people."
Ranstrom said many local residents have gotten used to long drives to get groceries and other necessities.