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Johnson County sees increase in food insecurity

Crisis Center plans community forum, officials discuss challenges

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The face of food insecurity doesn’t necessarily look like what many may think.

Johnson County officials said it could be your co-worker that skips lunch frequently or a child that takes extra snacks at school. And these instances in the county are on the rise, according to research from Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

“I think there is a bit of a myth out there that all food insecure are poor,” said Lynette Jacoby, Johnson County’s social services coordinator. “Oftentimes it is limiting meals or the type of food … Sacrifices are made so you can have a roof over your head or obtain the medication that is necessary.”

Food insecurity is defined by the FDA as anyone whose “consistent access to adequate food is limited by lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

Jacoby said the county’s food insecurity rate is on the rise slightly, despite national trends dropping.

Nationwide, 15.8 percent of Americans are food insecure, according to Johnson County’s Hunger Task Force Report. Johnson County’s rate is lower than the national average at 14.2 percent, but higher than the state average of 12.8 percent.

Sarah Benson Witry, the food bank and emergency assistance director at Johnson County’s Crisis Center, said factors like high housing rates, children being out of school for the summer and expensive healthy foods all factor into the county’s struggle with food insecurity. To work to improve some of these factors, the Crisis Center planned the Johnson County Hunger Forum Tuesday at 9 a.m. at the Coralville Public Library, which is open to the public.

Housing rates

Food pantry officials say housing rates have a major impact on Johnson County residents’ food insecurity, especially when they’re considered “housing-cost burdened.” Citizens are considered burdened if they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. They are considered severely housing-cost burdened if they pay more than 50 percent of their income in housing.

In the hunger task force’s February 2016 report, a survey of those who visited the county’s food pantries said more than 81 percent of these residents were severely housing-cost burdened. Jacoby called this figure “one of the more alarming pieces of information” the county received from the report.

“One bill is disproportionately high, and that’s housing,” Benson Witry said. “That just makes it impossible to pay the rest of your bills.”

Summer breaks

Every school district in Johnson County experienced an increase in the number of children who qualify for free and reduced lunches in recent years, according to the hunger task force report. Joan Vanden Berg, the youth and family development coordinator for the Iowa City Community School District, said the district alone has 4 thousand students on free and reduced lunches.

Vanden Berg said the food pantries usually see an uptick in demand during the summer when many children are at home and not receiving a free meal each day. She said the district tries to compensate with its many summer programs — where it tries to serve healthy meals.

“We’re trying to mitigate that summer slide,” Vanden Berg said.

Healthy foods

In the task force report, pantry goers cited fresh fruits and vegetables as among the most important items to keep in the pantries with milk and meats. Benson Witry said families can often opt for less expensive and less healthy processed options when they’re food insecure.

Bob Andrelik, the executive director of Table to Table, an organization which supplies food pantries and meal programs in Johnson County, said that while people living on a limited income know what options are healthiest for them, it’s not always a realistic option because these options tend to be more expensive.

Andrelik said the county is making an effort to add more fresh produce into its pantries with the Grow Johnson County program. He said this year the program should contribute 20 to 25 thousand pounds of produce to people who are food insecure.

“We feel real good about that, but it’s an ongoing problem, so you’re constantly chasing after a moving target,” Andrelik said.

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