CEDAR RAPIDS — Area food pantry officials say they are seeing more people take more food more frequently, while at the same time, in some cases, food donations are down.
That has led to a need to think outside the box in order to keep the shelves stocked and residents fed. Officials say they’ve started community gardens, a recipe sharing program and education efforts to strengthen donor relations.
Brian Westthalen, a board member with the Linn Community Food Bank in Linn County, said his organization served 15,300 people last year and expects a jump of 5 percent to 10 percent this year. He said the families being served are getting bigger and are returning at a higher rate than individual clients.
To deal with the influx, he said the Food Bank is relying on its donors now more than ever, especially organizations like churches and schools that conduct regular food drives.
The North Liberty Community Pantry in Johnson County saw more than 9,000 visits from more than 1,900 people last year, an increase in visits of about 3 percent.
Kaila Rome, executive director, said that families are taking more food per visit — up from 34 pounds in 2015 to 36 pounds last year.
“North Liberty is growing really fast and our numbers over the last five years have indicated that’s the trend,” Rome said.
She said the cost of living is contributing to the increases.
To help stretch the food, the pantry started a community garden where fresh fruits and vegetables are raised and also began a recipe sharing program with hope that families learn to cook with unique ingredients that may just sit on the shelves otherwise.
The increase in usage is even higher at the Coralville Community Food Pantry, which served more than 2,600 people last year and says it expects year-over-year increases of 15 percent.
“We can definitely feel it here in the pantry. We’re seeing more folks come through,” said John Boller, executive director. “We’ve learned that this year about 60 percent of our clients have at least one person in their household who is working,” Boller said, noting cost of living — and not necessarily unemployment — is driving the numbers higher.
Sara Sedlacek, communications and development director at the Crisis Center of Johnson County, which has a food pantry in Iowa City, cited similar challenges.
“We still have very high housing costs in this community,” she said. “That’s really a big problem and the cost of food is constantly rising but wages aren’t.”
Sedlacek said the Crisis Center’s food donations have dropped. They took in 22,000 fewer pounds during the last six months, compared to the same time a year earlier.
“That’s a pretty significant drop,” Sedlacek said, adding the organization has seen an increase in financial contributions. “As far as buying food, we’re financially able to buy food, but it definitely cuts down on the amount of variety we’re able to provide.”
The Salvation Army of Cedar Rapids, which operates a food bank and serves meals, said they are an exception to what others are reporting.
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Paul Logan, an officer for The Salvation Army, said the organization served about 38,000 meals last year, which was actually fewer than the previous year.
He said The Salvation Army also has a community garden and is hoping to switch from handing out pre-boxed food at its food bank to allowing clients to come in and choose what they want.
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