Although Johnson County is a vibrant community that offers a high quality of life, one in seven residents is “food insecure,” lacking the financial means to have consistent access to adequate food. According to the national hunger relief organization Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org), 14.2 percent of Johnson County residents (19,320 people, including 4,260 children) are food insecure, compared to 12.4 percent statewide.
The Johnson County Hunger Task Force (JCHTF), an initiative of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, was established to start a community conversation about food insecurity; collect data; and discuss challenges, gaps, and solutions to the problem. More than 60 individuals from a broad range of disciplines participated on the Task Force, including local and state elected officials, community members, faith leaders, social service providers, and local growers.
Over a 16-month period, the JCHTF developed and administered a number of surveys in an effort to identify barriers to food security and solutions to address hunger. Surveys solicited feedback from food pantry guests, pantry and dining service providers, underserved populations, and key informants in the rural communities where services are lacking. Key findings included:
• 81 percent of pantry guests were severely housing-cost-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of income on housing costs.
• 60 percent of pantry guests acquire half or more of their food needs from a food pantry.
• 48 percent of pantry guests were not receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps).
• Nearly 50 percent of respondents reported eating less than they wanted at least once in the last 30 days due to insufficient food in the home.
• Transportation is a major barrier to food accessibility, especially for older adults and individuals with mobility issues.
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Lack of affordable housing in Johnson County compounds food insecurity. Many individuals and families are forced to choose between paying for housing or purchasing food.
Roughly 43 percent of food-insecure households in Johnson County have incomes exceeding 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($44,955 for a household of four), which means they make too much money to qualify for governmental food assistance programs. More than one-third of the students in the Iowa City Community School District are eligible for free and reduced lunch because of financial need.
Accessibility is also a barrier. You may be surprised to learn that several “food deserts” exist within the Iowa City metro area. A food desert is a low-income geographic area in which there is low access to affordable and healthy food. Despite several grocery stores and food markets in the area, if these resources are not within walking distance, food-insecure individuals must have access to transportation or nearby public transit stops to get there. Without a vehicle, physically carrying groceries home is a significant challenge.
Based on the analysis of local data the JCHTF developed a number of recommendations to reduce hunger in Johnson County ranging from short-term, inexpensive solutions to long-term and systemic changes. Some of the recommendations include a mobile pantry and farm stands in food deserts, food pantries in secondary schools, improved bus routes, expanded outreach on food resources, and additional food storage for local pantries.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors recently approved $54,000 in funding for new hunger relief initiatives. Proposals are being accepted to pilot a mobile pantry, pantry services or supplemental food packs in a secondary school, and farm stands.
Hunger is not an issue that can be solved by one entity alone. It will take the collective efforts of all of us to rally together to make a difference and ensure that no one in our community goes hungry. To access the application for funding or view the full Hunger Task Force report and see how you can make a difference in fighting local hunger visit www.johnson-county.com/ss.
• Lynette Jacoby is the Johnson County Social Services Coordinator and Chairwoman of the Johnson County Hunger Task Force.