116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Food pantries are used to seeing ebbs and flows in the demand for their services, but in the last few years that demand has been growing consistently — leaving some Eastern Iowa food banks struggling to keep up.
While need has been high since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, things really ramped up earlier this year when pandemic-based subsidies of food stamps ended in Iowa. Jane Suiter, president of the board at Linn Community Food Bank, said that since that change in April, the food bank has been giving out twice as much food as before.
The food pantry tries to keep an extra year’s budget in savings to make up for deficits during hard times, but sometimes other changes have to be made as well, Suiter said.
“If we don’t have enough donations, based on what we need, then we will take away something that we give our clients. We used to do a cash voucher, and when we were getting our funds low, we stopped doing that. Right now we give them an egg and a milk coupon, so that’s something we could take away,” Suiter said.
Most food pantries in Cedar Rapids are partially supplied through the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP. The program has a food reservoir that pantries can order from — either for free or for a reduced price — but the reservoir doesn’t always have everything.
HACAP gets its food from several places. Some of it is purchased, some of it is donated and some of it comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the last year, the amount of food available from the USDA has decreased, donations have decreased and prices to buy food have increased, said Kim Guardado, the HACAP Food Reservoir director.
“There’s this perfect storm of all these things that have come together to drastically decrease the amount of food that’s available to us,” Guardado said.
Foods that are high in protein, like eggs, milk, meat and peanut butter, tend to be the hardest to get, and they tend to go the fastest, according to Julie Palmer, director of Olivet Neighborhood Mission.
“Everybody’s in the same boat … even the local retailers,” Palmer said. “I called one the other day and said, ‘Hey, I need 30 cases of peanut butter, what would you charge me?’ He told me the cost and then said that all they have in the warehouse is 11 cases. Is that good enough? It’s going to have to be.”
Olivet had to do some emergency fundraising this year to keep up with the increased need and more expensive prices, Palmer said.
Recently, Palmer said she took a leap of faith and ordered 500 turkeys so Olivet clients could have turkeys for Thanksgiving. She then reached out to Olivet donors to let them know about the cost, and was quickly inundated with donations.
“We live in a great community, and people don’t realize how giving this community is in general,” Palmer said. “You have to roll with whatever happens, and if you come from a mindset of serving, for whatever reason, God provides, and things show up, and we’re thankful as heck for that.”
Ronda Anderson, the parish nurse at Bethany Lutheran Church, who runs the Bethany Lutheran Food Pantry, said she’s also seen a lot of blessings this year as more people have been seeking help.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in need, but yet God has just continued to bless us with people being generous,” Anderson said.
Bethany’s food pantry has been running since June 2021, and it’s open only on Sundays for two hours. Olivet and Linn Community Food Bank are both open five days a week.
Anderson said only a few people showed up during the first few weeks the pantry was open, but now, almost 18 months later, it’s normal to see upward of 70 people each week. For the last few months, there have been at least 10 new families showing up each week.
Many of the people who come to Bethany work during the week and aren’t able to go to food pantries open only on weekdays. But despite having jobs, many of these people are still struggling to make ends meet, according to Bethany Lutheran’s pastor, Mike Erickson.
“Just two weeks ago, I was out there talking to someone and they said with the rising prices, from gas to groceries, every extra dollar you spend on gas is a dollar you can’t spend on groceries,” Erickson said.
With the holiday season, financial difficulties can become even more noticeable as families struggle to put together large holiday dinners and buy gifts.
Luckily, this time of year also tends to be the time when the most donations come in.
“As we move into the holidays, I would challenge people to think about how they can help. That might be inviting a neighbor over to eat with you on Christmas Day, or finding a way to donate some food to a local pantry,” Guardado said. “You can volunteer, you can donate dollars or you can donate food. There’s a lot of ways to get involved to make a difference. And this is the time of year when it’s important for us to remember all of those people around us and include everybody.”
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