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CHEYENNE — Wyoming's low unemployment rate masks the fact that thousands of Wyoming residents go hungry daily, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said last week.

Government officials, hunger-relief agencies and faith-based organizations gathered on the steps of the Capitol to draw attention to this week's National Hunger Awareness Day, June 6.

Diane DeLozier, director of the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies, said about 53,000 people in Wyoming — 10 percent of the state's population — live at or near the poverty level. And hunger isn't limited to the homeless and the unemployed, she said.

"It's not what you think," DeLozier said. "Our citizens, our neighbors are struggling."

Freudenthal drove home the point, saying the state's booming economy can actually make problems like poverty and hunger harder to see.

"The fact is all of the top-line numbers are remarkable in this state, but it remains equally true that there are a significant number of people, many of whom are children, who are living in poverty and near-poverty conditions," Freudenthal said.

Freudenthal also defended the use of faith-based organizations to deliver social services, including anti-hunger programs.

Recently, an investigation by The Associated Press revealed that the state Department of Family Services had given tens of thousands of dollars to a private religious corporation that has funded churches, anti-abortion clinics and other religious organizations.

A section of the Wyoming Constitution reads: "No money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution."

"I think that it is being done in a manner that observes the proper separation between church and state," Freudenthal said. "If I recall right, the Constitution says they're supposed to be separate, not that they're supposed to deny that either one or the other exists."

Family Services Director Rodger McDaniel also defended the use of faith-based programs.

"We can't be afraid of the debate that swirls about whether or not that's appropriate, because to the people who are hungry, it matters whether or not the local faith community is involved in this effort," McDaniel said.

Copyright © 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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