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Too expensive to eat: Families share challenges of living in Johnson County

Mother tells Johnson County of her struggles, feeling 'inadequate'

Barbie Izquierdo (left) watches as Becci Reedus, the executive director of the Johnson County Crisis Center, speaks at a Thursday roundtable in Iowa City about food insecurity, high housing costs and poverty in Johnson County. Izquierdo, an anti-hunger advocate from Philadelphia, was in Iowa City to discuss her struggles with feeding her children.
Barbie Izquierdo (left) watches as Becci Reedus, the executive director of the Johnson County Crisis Center, speaks at a Thursday roundtable in Iowa City about food insecurity, high housing costs and poverty in Johnson County. Izquierdo, an anti-hunger advocate from Philadelphia, was in Iowa City to discuss her struggles with feeding her children.
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IOWA CITY — What kept Barbie Izquierdo going every morning as she struggled to feed her children was a quote “H.O.P.E. — Hold On Pain Ends” written across the whiteboard at the foot of her bed.

Izquierdo, an anti-hunger advocate from Philadelphia, visited Iowa City for the Crisis Center of Johnson County’s roundtable discussion on hunger and barriers to food, as well as its Hunger Banquet on Thursday.

County officials and staffers, Crisis Center employees and other stakeholders discussed how Izquierdo’s story compared to the issue of food insecurity, high housing costs and poverty in Johnson County.

“Knowing that your body needs food and, as a mother, you can’t provide that, is one of the hardest, hardest, hardest things that I’ve ever had to do,” Izquierdo said.

Izquierdo is the subject of a documentary, “A Place at the Table,” and a founding member of Witnesses to Hunger, a research and advocacy organization.

She told her story about supporting her children with such challenges as a lack of heat or food at times, an abusive relationship and more.

“You just feel so inadequate,” she said. “You feel so much lower than everyone else. You feel like a bad mom. You feel like no matter what you do is just never going to be good enough.”

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Roundtable speakers also discussed issues that may be a contributing factor for the one in seven Johnson County residents who are in need of food assistance, according to the 2016 Johnson County Hunger Task Force Report.

Among the factors mentioned: High rents, occupancy rates and jobs with wages so low it may not be worth working if it means losing social service benefits.

In the report, more than 80 percent of food pantry survey respondents said they spend more than half of their income on housing.

In Johnson County, the median gross rent is more than $170 higher than the state average of $697, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The fear about the struggles and everything being connected, and ‘if I pay this bill, what happens to that bill?’ — I think that’s very, very common with people living in poverty,” Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig said.

“One health issue, one flat tire, one dead battery can throw off your entire month of how you’re going to get your bills paid.”

Rettig said Izquierdo’s story was “incredibly powerful and one that you could probably hear through a lot of voices. But she has to courage to be willing to tell it.”

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