116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Food shouldn’t be something people have to worry about or go without because they have to choose between a meal or paying the rent and their water bill. But it happens on a daily basis across the United States and here in Iowa.
Food bank officials have many stories about how many working families cannot provide one meal, not to mention three a day on their own without food banks and pantries assistance or some kind of financial aid, if they qualify. Most are living paycheck to paycheck and if one parent loses a job or there is an unforeseen medical bill added, then they have to choose between buying food and paying bills.
Kim Guardado, chief director of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP, Food Reservoir in Hiawatha, said there were many families who needed food assistance for the first time last year because of that scenario of losing a job or having an unexpected bill during the pandemic.
“You can’t look at hunger without looking at other factors of poverty,” Guardado pointed out.
Michelle Book, CEO of Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, agreed, saying it’s not difficult to understand how families have to choose between paying their rent first and filling up the gas tank before worrying about from where the next meal is coming.
Book said two factors that influence food insecurity rates include unemployment and poverty, according to food bank network Feeding America. The overall poverty rate in 2019 was 10.5 percent among white, 18.8 percent for Blacks and 15.7 percent for Latinos.
Feeding America projected that more than 42 million people across the country may have experienced food insecurity in 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic, including 13 million children.
They also found racial disparities in food insecurity that existed before and remain in the aftermath of the pandemic. Feeding America projects that 21.6 percent of Black individuals may experience food insecurity this year, compared to 11 percent of white individuals.
Iowa food insecurity
In Iowa, more than 305,000 people were food insecure before the pandemic and 459,850 last year, according to the Feeding Iowans Task Force report. There were 10.9 percent food insecurity in 2017, 9.4 percent in 2019 and 12.8 percent last year due to pandemic. In the first three months, there was a 51 percent increase in those experiencing food insecurity.
Iowa Food banks distributed 25 percent more food last year than in 2019.
Linda Gorkow, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association and member of the task force, said the group, created by Gov. Kim Reynolds and chaired by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, in March 2020 played a vital role in helping the food banks work together to overcome any gaps in food operations throughout the pandemic.
Distribution was greatly affected by limited supply chains and restrictions, along with financial donations.
Gorkow pointed out some meal sites were closed because of lack of resources and coronavirus restrictions, as well as some area processing plants, which affected supply chains nationally as well as in the state. The food donated to food banks and pantries by grocery stores, which typically are in excess, didn’t have any extra. They also were facing shortages during pandemic. The agricultural supply chain also was hit hard, she added.
There was a 40 percent decrease in pork processing capacity, 26 percent price increase for pork chops and a 25 percent price increase for ground beef, and liquid egg prices decreased by 68 percent, according to the task force’s report.
The association supports the six Feeding America food banks across Iowa, including nonprofit HACAP’s reservoir and the Des Moines location, as well as River Bend Food Bank in Davenport, Northeast Iowa Food Bank in Waterloo, Food Bank of Siouxland in Sioux City and the Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha, Neb., which also provides for Western Iowa. Each of the food banks has hundreds of food pantry and agency partners in the multiple counties they serve.
“This is really the story of what didn’t happen — we didn’t run out of food at the food banks and worked with multiple agencies and producers to prevent this,” Gorkow said. “There were so many heroes … . Everybody who contributed to the food banks with donations or their time, the food bank and pantry workers and food producers. All heroes.”
Task force solutions
The task force initially helped develop a mini-supply chain using Iowa’s strengths of partnerships and community-focused solutions. The Iowa National Guard was enlisted to help distribute food and pack boxes during the during the peak impact months. More than 19,000 food boxes and nearly 2,000 miles were covered to distribute food to pantries and mobile sites by the troops, according to the task force report.
Another solution was working with the producers in the state for the much needed protein and produce for families to stay healthy, Gorkow said. Members of the task force through “Pass the Pork” worked with the Iowa Pork Producers Association to help pig farmers donate to food banks. Local processors extended hours of operation to process and package the donations to keep up with the growing demand. Beef Up Iowa and Turkey to Table were similar programs.
All the programs were supported by state and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds administered by Reynolds’ office totaling more than $414 million.
The Iowa State University Meat Lab helped lead the processing when others were unavailable and more help was needed, Gorkow noted.
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