Government

'The safety net has a big hole in it:' Iowa food pantries work to stave off high levels of hunger

Store manager Ben Schaefer (left) and assistant manager of health wellness Sean McGarvey from the Blairs Ferry drugstore
Store manager Ben Schaefer (left) and assistant manager of health wellness Sean McGarvey from the Blairs Ferry drugstore location of Hy-Vee on Dec. 15 move meal kits to the back of a truck to be unloaded for those in need to pick up at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Aug. 10 derecho was a late, unwelcome guest at Pearle Bell’s birthday celebration.

Just a couple of days after she turned 47, the storm’s hurricane-force winds left her and some neighbors at the Oak Hill Manor apartment complex on the southeast side without power.

She was at Hy-Vee getting groceries when the storm pummeled Linn County. Little did she know that she’d have nowhere to store her perishable goods when she returned home.

As the August heat beat down on storm-stricken Cedar Rapids in the coming days and residents remained without electricity for days, Bell’s refrigerated food soured. She had to toss about $700 worth of food.

Other costs piled up: Car repairs. Rent. Utilities. Medical bills. Her monthly allocation of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — currently capped at $194 for a one-person household, already an amount expanded thanks to federal aid passed because of the COVID-19 pandemic — wasn’t enough to fully replenish her food supply.

“Us low-income, it’s hard on us because we don’t have enough money so you have these items,” Bell said. “Do we want to buy our medicine or have food or places to live?”

To keep food on the table and help her neighbors who don’t have easy access to transportation, she turns to food pantries. These charities typically are sustained through government provisions and rescued grocery store food, and with help from donors.

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“I am very grateful for what they’ve been doing because it helps the ones who are in need,” Bell said, wiping tears that slipped out of the corners of her eyes while sitting inside her car at a Dec. 15 drive-through Hy-Vee holiday food bag distribution. “Because I’ve been helping my neighbors who are disabled and I’ve been getting food for them, too, and it’s hard on them. They don’t have no cars.”

The pandemic — and in Iowa, the derecho — have laid bare the poverty and systemic inequities that have long existed in the world’s wealthiest country, exposing how individuals like Bell have fallen through the cracks of support systems.

While government programs and a network of nonprofits exist to help the most vulnerable individuals, those on the front lines working to stave off food insecurity told The Gazette the catastrophic events of 2020 have increased the level of need in the community. The future of some federal aid programs remains in the balance as program expiration dates approach, further worrying food assistance providers about how they will continue to meet the heightened demand.

Those who already used food pantries as a reliable source for nutrition continue to do so. But more often, those who staff and volunteer at food pantries say, people are coming to these resources for the first time — individuals who have only recently found themselves struggling.

“It’s just heartbreaking, the number of people that are looking for food and the calls that we get on a daily basis of people looking for food,” said Kim Guardado, the director of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program’s Food Reservoir, which is a Feeding America food bank serving East Central Iowa.

The nonprofit distributes food to partners across Linn, Johnson, Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones and Washington counties. In East Central Iowa, HACAP reports 53,000 residents, or 1 in 9, face food insecurity.

The nation has fought record levels of hunger before. Images from the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the nation’s history that began about 90 years ago, capture desperation and frustration as Americans wait in bread lines and crowd together to receive meals.

In 2020, the collective frustration has resurfaced but with a socially distanced appearance. Cars line up at drive-through food distribution events as volunteers hand off prepackaged bags. Masked individuals venture to the nearest food pantry, greeting the volunteers whom, without them, they may not know where they’d get their next meal.

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Even when COVID-19 vaccines are widely distributed next year, food pantry workers and local officials expect the demand for help will not subside for years.

“This will be one of the most challenging years we’ve had in a long, long time,” said Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd, whose district includes the downtown area, which has a history of struggles with food access. “The city can’t afford to kick the problem down the road. We have a responsibility to tackle these issues and not pretend like someone else is going to take care of them for us. The reality is people are hurting. They are falling through the cracks. The safety net has a big hole in it. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to be part of the solution.”

‘Astonishing’ demand

Anticipating heightened need at the onset of the pandemic as businesses shut down and layoffs began, Guardado said HACAP combined some of its mobile food pantry events into a mega pantry with multiple trucks that could serve thousands of people in one stop.

At its last mega pantry event in September, not long after the derecho, she said there were so many people in line for food that HACAP ran out. Staff took an extra trip to grab more food, she added, but eventually the Cedar Rapids Police Department had to cut off the line because it had grown too long.

In fiscal 2019, which ran from Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019, for the nonprofit, Guardado said HACAP distributed about 9 million pounds of food, compared with about 12 million pounds of food in the following budget year, which ended Sept. 30. That comes to 10 million meals.

Among the population HACAP serves are students enrolled in the Kirkwood Community College system and the University of Iowa. Food insecurity has uniquely burdened college students, who already juggle rising tuition costs and other expenses like textbooks and rent.

Despite a move to mostly virtual instruction at the UI, the Food Pantry at Iowa, which serves all students, faculty and staff, in its first six weeks served three times as many clients and distributed five times as much food per week compared with the same period last year.

Executive Director Charlotte Lenkaitis said the level of need has been “astonishing” this year.

UI Hospitals and Clinics staff turned to the pantry after losing their jobs or having their hours cut, she said, and so did students caught in the hampered economy.

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“People like to say, ‘Oh this is all like a reflection of the pandemic,’ but no it’s not,” Lenkaitis said. “The pandemic is just revealing the issues that were already there.”

Also in Iowa City, the CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank in November opened a second food pantry, larger than the original. The center reported that more than 1,200 Johnson County families — not including walk-ins — had signed up for Project Holiday to receive a holiday meal.

In Cedar Rapids, Capt. Shawn DeBaar with he Salvation Army said this calendar year, the organization’s feeding programs have served 17,243 more meals and 2,150 more food boxes than in the same time last year.

Brian Mell, 51, said that as an individual experiencing homelessness, he’s learned it can take a lot of time to gather resources for a meal.

“This can free you up to pursue other work,” he said while scooping yogurt out of a foam container outside the Salvation Army Community Center.

He said mental health issues make it hard for him to keep a job, and when he is employed he has to worry about his benefits being cut even though his income may remain low.

“It’s just hard to get ahead,” Mell said.

Jane Suiter, president of the Linn Community Food Bank — operating daily during the week out of First Presbyterian Church, 310 Fifth St. SE, — said the pantry previously capped the number of visits clients could make at 12 per year and checked their IDs.

Those restrictions have been lifted temporarily at the nonprofit, which Suiter said serves between 10,000 and 12,000 people each year.

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“A lot of people are using food banks as the last resort, because they’re used to being able to provide stuff for their family,” Suiter said.

Ethel Fontenette, 65, scoured social media for a food distribution opportunity nearby and found the food pantry’s holiday food bag event. Her son dropped her off Tuesday to pick up a bag, which was stacked with ingredients for holiday staples like scalloped corn and green bean casserole.

“This is just wonderful,” Fontenette said. “ ... I just wish everybody knew about it.”

She lost her job with AARP in the spring because of COVID-19 and now lives with her son, who’s in his 40s.

“I’m OK with my retirement, but it’s just that I’m living from month to month and that’s kind of hard,” Fontenette said.

‘So many stressors’

Some families are struggling to provide food for their children who used to be able to get meals at school but have been learning from home. Other households are juggling the costs of derecho repairs.

Together We Achieve, a group formed after the storm that is seeking to secure a nonprofit status, has served people facing these obstacles since August. The organization runs the Derecho Resource Center and has served about 18,000 Cedar Rapids residents and distributed about 60,000 pounds of goods since its formation, according to the organization’s president, Raymond Siddell.

Though some food assistance programs have restrictions on participation, he said the center’s resources are open to all.

“If they can just kind of focus on not having to worry about that next meal, if we can provide that for them, and they can focus on other things — because there’s so many stressors in life right now — if they can focus on the other things and not worry about food, maybe we can be in a little bit better place mentally and overall,” Siddell said.

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Some food pantry workers lauded HACAP’s generous food provisions at a time of overwhelming demand, but still Guardado said some supply is in jeopardy depending on whether additional action is taken at the federal level.

The Food Reservoir gets the bulk of its food from grocery store discards and from the Department of Agriculture.

One USDA program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, distributes food to states based on unemployment and poverty levels, and state agencies then give the food to food banks.

That program is ongoing, but under it the Trump administration and the USDA in 2018 launched a trade mitigation effort to help farmers affected by the trade war with China. This redistributes surplus commodities to food banks and other agencies that serve low-income people.

“We have had a lot of food coming in,” Guardado said, but the trade mitigation program is set to end next week.

HACAP is expecting a 50 percent drop in the amount of food it has available from the USDA beginning Jan. 1, she said. And as Congress spars with the White House over provisions of another round of COVID-19 relief, food assistance is in the balance.

“At this point, we don’t have real good plans on how we’re going to meet that need, and so we’ve been working with our other partners and working with Feeding America to try to find some other avenues of food sourcing or some kind of joint purchase efforts that we’re working on,” Guardado said.

Thirteen Iowa Senate Democrats have urged Gov. Kim Reynolds to tap into the state’s fiscal 2020 surplus and more than $770 million in reserve accounts to help with food assistance.

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Reynolds has used federal CARES Act funds for the “Feeding Iowans” initiative, which among other items includes money for pantries to expand their freezers.

On the prospect of approving additional state aid, Reynolds said Tuesday, “We do have the luxury that a lot of other states didn’t have to see if there are some areas where we can fill some gaps,” given the reserve fund, “but we have to see what the federal dollars will be able to accomplish with those.”

Food assistance typically hasn’t been a focus of City Hall, but moving forward, Cedar Rapids Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said staff will look for ways to leverage the city’s ties to the nonprofit sector and other partners to connect residents with resources.

“Because of COVID and the economic impact of that, the city will certainly be looking to see if there are additional ways we can assist,” she said.

Todd, the council member, noted that “cities succeed when everybody’s boat rises together. We can no longer pick and choose who winners are. We all sink or swim together.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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