It’s often said nobody should go hungry in America’s breadbasket. We agree, but achieving that goal requires overcoming a long list of social, financial and logistical barriers.
The network of hunger-fighting organizations in Eastern Iowa has quietly undergone some important changes in recent years. Those agencies may now be better situated than ever to meet the needs of our communities, but they can only do it with the help of thousands of donors and volunteers.
Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse, producing food products valued at around $30 billion annually, according to federal government data.
Yet at the same time, an estimated 12 percent of Iowans are food insecure, meaning they sometimes lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle.
Only about half of food insecure Iowans qualify for benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to the national anti-hunger organization Feeding America. Even many of those who do qualify for assistance still cannot meet their dietary needs between their benefits and their limited income.
Those shortfalls leave community nonprofit groups to fill that gap.
The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, or HACAP, is the central hub for fighting hunger in the seven counties it serves, including Johnson County and Linn County.
HACAP’s food reservoir distributed more than 6 million pounds of low-cost and no-cost food supplies to its partner agencies in Eastern Iowa last year.
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The number of HACAP partner agencies has grown in recent years from 100 in 2013 to 126 today. Those food security efforts take several different forms, intended to respond directly to the diverse needs of people living in the area.
A generation ago, food pantries often took the form of a closet in a church basement, stocked with canned soup and dried goods. Many of those still exist and serve an important purpose, but there now are many different options.
HACAP does not mandate how its partner pantries are operated. Organizers realize local volunteers and staff members know best how to help people in their own neighborhoods.
Most importantly, a greater number of pantries and meal sites allows Iowans to access help closer to home. A substantial body of research shows transportation is a significant barrier for food insecure Americans trying to access services, and the problem is even more pronounced in rural Iowa, where public transportation is often nonexistent.
A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted, “Vehicle access is perhaps the most important determinant of whether or not a family can access affordable and nutritious food.”
In response to those needs, Eastern Iowa communities also are served by a growing number of mobile food pantries, including 22 sites operated by HACAP, which visit designated sites for a few hours each on regularly scheduled days. Mobile pantries often serve outlying portions of urban areas or very small communities, where social services are difficult to access.
Other examples of innovative anti-hunger efforts are the campus food pantries now operating at several high schools and colleges in the area, including at the University of Iowa and Mount Mercy University.
Planning is underway for food assistance at more local colleges and universities, a welcome development as a University of Wisconsin study published this month found 36 percent of university students and 42 percent of community college students nationally experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
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Distribution methods are changing, but so too is the variety of food available at local food pantries. HACAP and its partners have worked hard to sort out the logistics of providing produce and other fresh foods to hungry families. Many pantries now are set up to accept perishable donations.
One example is HACAP’s Great American Milk Drive last month in Cedar Rapids and Marion, which brought in tens of thousands of gallons of milk to be distributed at local pantries. Anti-hunger advocates have found fresh items are in high demand when they’re available to clients.
The growth and diversification of anti-hunger agencies provides more opportunities for Iowans to help neighbors in need. HACAP and its partner agencies rely heavily on donations and volunteers from community members.
While canned goods are good, money is better. Because of HACAP’s huge volume and special purchasing sources, the organization is able to purchase seven pounds of food for every dollar donated.
Iowa is famous for the bounty raised between our borders, and we applaud the dozens of local food pantries working tirelessly to bring food to the people who need it most. With your help, our communities can realize our hunger-free dream.
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