Despite a relatively good economy, local food pantries are seeing a double-digit increase in the number of hungry residents.
Des Moines pantries normally expect about a 3.5 percent increase each month, compared to the previous year. But for the last six months, that increase has more than tripled in the metro area, said Rev. Sarai Schnucker Rice, executive director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, which oversees the network of 14 local pantries.
“Increases usually come when the economy is bad or there is a recession,” she said, but the current spike comes at a time when Iowa has historically low unemployment.
Chris Draman, a warehouse worker, moves inventory in the newly-upgraded Food Bank of Iowa. The renovations tripled the food bank’s capacity. (Photo: Food Bank of Iowa/Special to the Register)
Years ago, DMARC pantries committed to serving only healthy meals after learning their clients had a disproportionately high rate of diabetes. That means lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains — and little sugar, salt and fat.
Healthy food can be more expensive and harder to secure than packaged items, Rice said. Des Moines pantries receive food from the Food Bank of Iowa, wholesalers and direct donations, which have not increased with the city’s need, she said.
“People sense the economy is doing better, so that sense of urgency about needing to donate is gone,” Rice said.
► More: Most Iowa wages have stagnated. But the rich keep getting richer.
Recently completed upgrades to the Food Bank of Iowa will help pantries get more fresh produce, said CEO Michelle Book. After 18 months of construction and “extraordinary change,” the state’s largest food bank now has three times as much storage for non-perishable, refrigerated and frozen foods, and safer and more efficient workspaces.
The upgrades will allow the food bank — one of six in the state — to reach its goal of distributing 2 million pounds of food within 55 counties each month. It currently distributes 1 million pounds a month.
“We can start to buy fresh produce in bigger volumes because we now have the capacity to store them, which will save money on transportation,” Book said.
Students from Central College break down packaged pork fritters into family-sized packages in the Food Bank of Iowa’s newly added “Clean Room.” (Photo: Food Bank of Iowa/Special to the Register)
Book and Rice agree that wage stagnation contributes to a greater need in the state. Iowa wages lag behind rising inflation, data shows.
“The lack of affordable housing, daycare and mental health services further contribute to poverty in the state of Iowa,” Book said. She noted that summer break also increases hunger annually.
The Iowa Hunger Coalition, a collaboration of food banks, pantries, and food rescue organizations, advocates for legislation, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as food stamps. As Congress continues to debate details of the 2018 farm bill, the program’s future is uncertain.
“We’re working to bolster our own distribution network to prepare for any changes in coverage,” Book said.
Greater Des Moines pantries expect to serve more than 22,000 people in November alone.
Arresting Hunger is a law enforcement-led program in which law enforcement officers raise funds to provide Thanksgiving dinner kits across Iowa. This program distributes Thanksgiving meal kits throughout all 99 Iowa counties. (Photo: Food Bank of Iowa/Special to the Register)
Many of those in need are children. About 16 percent of Iowa’s kids are food insecure, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.
According to a new report, the Food Bank of Iowa gave away 166,474 backpacks of food to children struggling with food insecurity in the past year. It also provided food to more school pantries than ever before. School staff identifies students in need and directs them to the donated pasta, meat, milk, produce and soup to take home.
“In every community across the United States, there are people who do not know where they will find their next meal,” said Book. “The child sitting next to yours in class, the elderly person in the church pew behind you, the man who sacks your groceries. Hunger is pervasive.”
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