LUVERNE - A grassroots movement is underway in Rock County to end poverty, and plans are taking shape to address some of the most unmet needs in this far southwest corner of the state.

What began with a successful application to the Blandin Foundation to be part of a Leaders Partnering to End Poverty program in June 2017 has grown into #Luv1LuvAll. Engaged citizens of Rock County have come together to understand poverty, examine barriers, identify resources and address needs for those caught in the cycle.

On Thursday evening, more than a dozen individuals gathered for continued discussion on poverty in a program led by Katie Powell, statewide organizer of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition. Powell explained how Minnesota faith leaders in 2004 came together to develop a plan for overcoming poverty. Five years later, the Minnesota Legislature set a goal to end poverty by 2020, identifying several topic areas to target.

It’s now nearly 2019, and while strides have been made statewide, there’s still much to be done. Powell noted accomplishments ranging from the foreclosure rate in 2017 being the lowest in a decade at .2 percent, targeted efforts to reduce homelessness among veterans has led to significant reductions and youth homelessness decreased 14 percent between 2012-2015. She also highlighted the success of statewide programs including increases in the working family credit, raising the minimum wage and development of the emerging entrepreneur loan program.

“When we talk about ending poverty, it makes sense to draw in the entire state,” Powell said. “We won’t get legislation to happen unless we can reach everywhere.”

Some goals have yet to be accomplished statewide, including ensuring safe and affordable housing, creating pathways out of homelessness, providing safe and affordable transportation, educating for success, guaranteeing affordable child care for low income families, making changes in tax policy, creating accessible health care and promoting work as a means out of poverty.

Half a dozen work groups have been created under the #Luv1LuvAll umbrella targeting dental care, housing, brain (mental) health, senior dining, access to resources and health care access. Individuals leading those groups spoke Thursday night of the progress they’ve made thus far.

Dawn Anderson said basic access to dental care is lacking in Rock County, which is home to just one dentist who doesn’t accept patients covered by Medical Assistance.

“If you are on Medicaid here, you probably have to take a three-hour drive to get your dental work done,” Anderson said.

The dental care work group has developed several ideas, the most promising of which may be inviting Children’s Dental Services to come in and do dental work in the school.

A grant has already been written, and the project would include visiting second-grade classrooms to teach kids how to brush their teeth.

It isn’t just children, however, who suffer from a lack of accessible, affordable dental care. It impacts the health of all adults, and especially the elderly.

“We want to work with Sanford to see if there’s any way we can work together to get dentists here,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty sad - all of our groups are sad (about) the things you have to do in a community to help with poverty.”

Nicole Henrichs said the housing committee is working on safe and affordable rental housing - making sure existing housing is in good, livable condition.

“We’ve started seeing some trends on what we need to work at and are now researching grants,” Henrichs said, adding that many of the renters their group spoke with have no smoke or carbon monoxide alarms in their rental home. Some have non-working locks on entry doors, lack hot water or have issues with mold or bats.

Meanwhile, George Bonnema talked about plans to build a new senior center in Luverne, with the hope of including meeting space in the design. The recently elected president of Rock County Senior Citizens, Bonnema said membership has nearly doubled since he took the helm, and said promotions like $2 Tuesday are being utilized to increase participation at the senior meal site.

Bonnema also talked about the struggles of getting low-income residents on supplemental nutrition assistance programs to take advantage of doubling their EBT dollars by purchasing foods at the farmer’s market.

“Participation has been really poor in Rock County and we’re trying to figure out why,” he said.

Mentorship and a centralized database for Rock County resources were identified as goals of the group tasked with working on access to resources. The recently added health care focus group, meanwhile, is working on its mission statement.

Households in poverty

According to county-specific information at jrlc.org, using 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Hunger Solutions Minnesota, as well as 2016 data from the Minnesota Department of Education, 9.6 percent of Rock County households live in poverty. It notes 30.2 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches, and states Rock County food shelves distributed 74,821 pounds of food - a 207 percent increase from 2004. Rock County’s 2014 population was 9,600.

Those statistics compare with the following data from the six-county area of southwest Minnesota:

Nobles County (population 21,770): 13 percent of households in poverty; 64.1 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches; 431,750 pounds of food distributed (135 percent increase from 2004).

Cottonwood County (population 11,549): 12.9 percent of households in poverty; 48.3 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches; 215,494 pounds of food distributed (272 percent increase from 2004).

Pipestone County (population 9,271): 12.2 percent of households in poverty; 47.4 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches; 145,669 pounds of food distributed (156 percent increase from 2004).

Jackson County (population 10,079): 9.8 percent of households in poverty; 36.9 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches; 52,447 pounds of food distributed (286 percent increase from 2004).

Murray County (population 8,413): 9.6 percent of households in poverty; 33.5 percent of children receive free or reduced lunches; 73,114 pounds of food distributed (69 percent increase from 2004).