Food Insecurity in Iowa

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 16, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, guests Michelle Book, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa, and Kim Guardado, food reservoir director for Hawkeye Area Community Action Program in Hiawatha discuss food insecurity in Iowa.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

[ RECORDED: December 9, 2022 ]


Many Iowans are struggling to

put food on the table this holiday season.

We'll talk about food insecurity

and the nonprofit organizations providing help.

On this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends,

the Iowa PBS Foundation,

the Associated General Contractors of Iowa,

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This is the Friday, December

Here is Kay Henderson.

In the breadbasket of the world,

there are still people who are, quote unquote, food insecure.

We're going to talk about that

today on this edition of Iowa Press.

Our guests are Michelle Book.

She is the president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa.

It serves 55 of Iowa's 99 counties.

And joining us today is Kim Guardado.

She is the Food Reservoir director

that's essentially kind of a food bank director

for the Hawkeye area Community Action Program in Hiawatha.

And her organization serves seven counties for the folks

who are food insecure in that area.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Also joining this conversation, Clay Masters of Iowa

Public Radio and Aaron Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

So we wanted to start by just kind of

getting the lay of the land.

What is the current need out there?

What are

how do things

look right now as far as food insecurity in Iowa?

Michelle Book, but we'll start with you.

What are you seeing right now as we enter this holiday season?

How great is the need out there?

Well, the need flatlined, I believe over

the course of COVID, we saw flattening of the need,

an initial ramp up that flattened out.

Things seem to be calming down.

And then April 1st came SNAP.

Benefits decreased again, need doubled, tripled.

And in some parts of our states, we saw quadrupling of the need

where pantries are reporting that they're seeing

many more families with children and many people on fixed

income as before that April 1st snap change.

Kiim, how about in eastern Iowa.

There is.

Are you seeing something similar?

I would say yes.

Most of our partners are telling us that

right now

we're seeing about a 40% increase

over what we had seen previously.

Definitely families that have never accessed

this kind of food service before and families that have just

faced all kinds of increased challenges

that they've never had to access these kind of resources.

We've learned that or been told that food insecurity

can be a precursor

to other issues as well, including homelessness,

which has been on the rise in some Iowa communities.

I know it is in Cedar Rapids, for example.

Kim is that your experience as well?

Is that a warning sign

to even more issues that could come later?

I think food is one of those things that everybody needs.

So we want to provide

those resources to as many people as possible.

And when you have one need in an area, often

those needs are met with other challenges, like homelessness or

health care issues.

All of those things kind of go together.

So, you know, really

we just want to support families where they're at and help them

sort of the easiest thing we can provide for people.

Michelle, same question to you is, do you see that same thing?

Food insecurity and poverty go hand in hand.

And as and in that equation

is access to affordable housing, daycare, daycare that families

can't afford, health care and mental health care.

All of those come together.

They're all in one big basket.

But at the end of the day,

the thing that people seem to not be able to budget

for is food. So they'll pay their rent.

They've got to make the car payment.

They've got to take care of their kids health care costs.

At the end of the day, there's just not enough left for food.

We're seeing kind of a perfect storm right now

when you think about funding

that was there for pandemic relief, that's going away.

We're also seeing inflation pretty high.

And we've also seen some issues with supply chain

and getting resources.

How is that kind of mixture of challenges

affecting those that are food insecure?

And is this the kind of thing that will

work itself out in time or how do you address it

when you're seeing all these different things

coming together with some fairly new territory?

Start with you. Well,

we know inflation is at levels we've not seen since 1980.

Some of us have

some of us weren't born in 1980, but we haven't seen since

the 1980s, and our food prices have increased 13.9%.

That affects people that are living at

or below the poverty line.

It also affects food banks as we go out to procure food.

We're seeing increased prices,

a lack of what we need in the marketplace.

But then also

we have to contract for people to get it to us.

So freight costs have also risen extraordinarily.

So it impacts all of us, those folks

that are taking their calculator to the grocery store,

they're not able to absorb the inflation

the way some other people

might be able to over a period of time.

But again, it costs us more to provide the service as well.

Kim, how would you come at that question?

How is that kind of perfect storm

been impacting what you see on the ground?

You know, everything is all

just as Michelle described, everything all fits together.

And so in order for us to be able

to continue to provide for individuals,

we need to have access to more resources.

We need more food to feed the increased need.

We need more funding to be able to help, like Michelle

described, the transportation, all of those pieces together.

It's it's

been extremely challenging the last year to be able to do that.

You know, one point I might

I might talk about and Kim and I have talked about this before

food banking started, the 1960s.

And it's really based on food rescue,

keeping food out of landfills,

working with food retailers to take that food

that's not sellable but edible and then put it back in

to the cycle.

So we do that via

our smaller front line partners are our food pantries.

What we're finding today with

inflation, everybody's bottom line is shrinking

that those retailers, the producers and processors,

they're tightening things up.

So we're getting less food rescue

from some of the big

manufacturers, processors and less retailers

because people have gotten more comfortable

with shelves being cleaned off at the end of the day.

There's just less there for us

to rescue to get back into our food pantry network.

So that's a pinch as well.

And so because of that,

food banks

are having to purchase more food,

which with the increase of costs, is just making it even.

More our food budget in the first nine months of 22

compared to 21 to 650% more,

and in the last nine months than we did a year before.

I think that's an important distinction there, too.

I think a lot of people think

about food banks as places where you just bring donations,

but there's a, you know, a need to stock it as well.

I mean, how

how does that relationship work as far as donations versus

what you're having to buy as a food bank?

Your percentages might be a little bit different.

Kim, but during COVID,

about 50% of our food was coming from the USDA.

The emergency food assistance program, 30%

was donated and 20% we purchased with donor dollars.

And a lot of that was school backpack program.

Today, the USDA,

those food resources have declined significantly.

At about the same time, SNAP benefits declined.

So today, where we would have in the past that 50% of our food

comes from the USDA today,

And our and our donations have reduced.

So that lends itself to purchasing more.

Our 700 smaller front line partners come into our online

inventory system.

They order what they'd like, we pick it,

we pull it and we put it on a truck

and we deliver it to their front door.

They also have access to rescue from local food retailers.

We we match people up the local Costco

with the local pantry,

a local Fairway with a local feeding site.

So we put those things together.

We're the matchmaker.

So they rely on rescue food,

but also what they get from our inventory.

Similar to what you.

Exactly. Exactly. Mm hmm.

Let's talk about the demographics of the people

being served by your partners, the food pantries.

Kim tell us what

we would think of as the urban versus rural person

who uses a food bank or a food pantry.

Is there a huge difference in percentages?

I think the

the important thing to consider is that the person using

the pantry is a person just like you and me.

They're they're

the person who might just live a few houses down on your street

that has come upon a difficult time

and has needed to seek out food resources.

And so when we try to think

about who what does that person look like?

What does that family look like?

They're just like us

and because food is so important,

we need to make sure that everybody has access to food.

When we look at rural versus urban,

I think in the rural area, we often see

we're all proud Iowans.

And so it can be challenging to

go to ask for food from a local pantry

when there are many of our pantries are all volunteer run.

And so you've got volunteers serving people

in their own neighborhood, which can be challenging.

So we do often see families go to a neighboring community

to get food, whether it's a mobile pantry

or another food pantry in the urban area.

You know, there's

there's there's a lot of different

there's a lot more opportunities,

I would say, for families to access food resources.

We try to work with our partners to make sure

that there are opportunities seven days a week

in the evenings, in the mornings and afternoons,

because everybody's working different shifts.

We want to make sure that we're providing

those resources for everybody.

Michelle, both of you are using families a lot.

Are there more families

that are food insecure or more individuals single?


Well, I would say in October,

Foodbank of Iowa had a record month and we served

of those were children.

Our food

pantries are telling us that with the uptick

they're seeing that that growth has been

in families with children and a majority of them are working.

One in seven working Iowa households does not make

enough money to cover the basic costs of living.

If you're on fixed income, that's the other demographic.

They're seeing more folks on fixed income

and adult.

You, me, all of us need about $29,000

a year gross to float the boat.

Average disability for the state of Iowa is

for the state of Iowa is 12,000.

So there's a big delta there.

It's families with kids and it's folks on fixed income.

Kim, you mentioned the one possible

hurdle in rural communities, especially where people may be,

like you

said, too proud or whatever it is, the hesitant

to seek this kind of assistance even though they may need it.

I wanted to follow up on that.

I'm curious to what level your concern is with that.

You know, you mentioned people

that will go to another community, which isn’t maybe

ideal but at least they're getting that help.

What level of concern do you have that

there are folks out there who just aren't

who need it, who who could could benefit from

this kind of help

and the programs, but just aren't doing that

for some of those reasons you talked about.

We try to focus on having it in our area.

We have mobile pantries in all of our communities,

especially in those areas,

so that families who do need to access

that can can find us one way or another.

We are always concerned

about the families

who are not receiving the help that they need.

And, you know, it's important that we try to contact families

in lots of different ways.

We do a lot of collaboration with other programs.

And as a food bank

within a community action, we're closely connected

to programs like Energy Assistance and Head Start

and the WIC program to make sure that there's

a lot of opportunities to notify families

about what resources are available.

I guess another

thing that I

wanted to mention that Michelle and I have talked about

when you were talking about families,

I was thinking about the the cost

that families pay for feeding their children in school.

And if there was a way for us to provide more of that

opportunity for the free and reduced meals to continue

in the school districts

would be a way for all of families accessing

services with young children to be able to have more food

resources for their family.

And along those same lines, collaboration is key to

our success.

We find the food, we keep it safe,

and we get it to the door of our partner.

But our 700 partners, they hand it to the person that need it.

So we are we are constantly looking for

new and different collaborations.

We're working with Area Aging Agency.

They have regions established across the state of Iowa.

They can get food to seniors.

Seniors are proud and they don't come

many times looking for it when they need it.

We're working with veterans services offices.

There's one in each one of our 99 counties

to put emergency food boxes in those offices for veterans.

And we're also working with school systems.

We now have about 120 pantries embedded inside of schools

because we know schools

in many parts of our state are the center of the universe.

The other thing I'd say about rural versus urban

in metro Des Moines, we have over 200 partners.

There is a plethora of services

in the metro and that's a good thing

because there's high demand in the metro.

But you go out to, let's say, Wapello, Iowa

the nearest grocery store is a 15 minute drive.

They depend on Dollar General to get milk once a month.

So the services in rural Iowa are few and far between,

and we have to work

hard to build those partnerships in rural counties

and then do our best to help them build capacity.

We hold their hand all the way because it's really challenging

in rural Iowa.

And you're kind of explaining

the situation that comes forward with food deserts

in which urban and rural food deserts look very different.

But there are also

some of the same hurdles when you think

about the 15 minute drive in Wapello versus

figuring out a transportation schedule for busses or whatever,

and, say, a Cedar Rapids road

or a Des Moines I I'm interested to know,

you know, is the paying for a gallon of milk

at the dollar general,

the overspending, it may be a gas station.

Is that leading to some of the food insecurity

that people just don't have access to that

within their locale?

Well, certainly, I mean, when you

when you have a you take a calculator to the grocery store,

every penny counts.

So if they're paying double for a gallon of milk

because that's all they have access to,

of course, that's another, you know, a buck 75.

They can't spend on something else.

The cost of eggs, the cost of oranges,

all those things are extraordinarily

more expensive today

because of inflation, but even more

so when you go into a convenience store.

So it's kind of a public education campaign as well to

to try to get the information out to communities

that might not even know how to access this food.

I mean, like,

what are the partnerships that you have

that kind of get that communication out there?

We work closely with libraries.

I mean, a lot of times for a rural community,

a library is the central part of that town.

The kids

go there

after school to the library and knows

which children need snacks after school.

That's a great way to get connected.

Get those resources out to families in the community.

We're also working with health care providers

so we can work with health care providers to have them do

food security screening during a well exam

or a visit to the doctor's office or free clinic.

And so they're asking those questions

that that haven't normally been asked

in a health care facility.

And then we provide food boxes for the health care

provider to give to that family during that visit,

along with resources

to get connected to a local pantry

so that there's lots of additional ways that we can get

those messages out to families that to be able

to help them access what they need.

Michelle In everything we send out the door, every box,

every bag, everything has a has instructions

on how to access SNAP benefits and which benefits.

And then as a food Bank of Iowa

association, of which Kim and I belong,

we pay for a snap hotline

so Iowans can call that hotline in order to get SNAP benefits.

That's something that the food Bank

network here in Iowa supports,

but also along those lines of working with health care,

that's how we have access to senior citizens.

Our seniors are so proud. They've worked hard.

Their entire lives.

They don't want a handout.

They they see it as something that somebody else, their

families out there that need this.

So going to health care providers and clinics,

that is the best way to access senior citizens that we found.

Michelle, you talked about the work

that you do

with your partners,

the Food Bank of Iowa right now is

dealing with some issues with some of those partners,

and it relates to exclusivity agreements.

And I don't want to get too into the weeds here and

and the different issues that have popped up.

But what I'm just curious is how confident

you feel that

those issues can be resolved and that at the end of the day,

you will be able to continue to work with all of these

local partners

that are have a similar mission to your own.

Thank you for that question, Erin.

There are no exclusivity agreements.

There has never been an exclusivity agreement.

There never will be an exclusivity agreement.

That's in regard to rescue food as a feeding America food bank,

we are obligated to go and pick up food

from national level partners, partners that are working

under the Feeding America Food Bank.

Example, Walmart, they work with Feeding America.

So because I'm a Feeding America food bank,

I'm obligated to pick up from the Walmarts

within my geographic service area.

And doing so.

Walmart knows that we keep the food safe.

We have to adhere to strict food safety guidelines,

and then we weigh

all of the pounds of food that we have taken

and we report that to Feeding America.

And then Walmart gets a report once a month

with all the pounds rescued across their entire service area

and they get a tax deduction for that.

We have no agreement with Walmart food Bank of Iowa

has no agreement with Walmart.

But it's part of my job as a Feeding America food banker

to get there and pick up that food as a service to Walmart.

Walmart can decide on any given day where that food goes.

That's their choice.

So if they want to divert it on Wednesday

someplace else, fine, just let me know.

Otherwise, I work for Walmart

and other retailers that have food to rescue.

Back to the first part of that question, Erin.

In September of this year,

we issued a change to our contract

requiring that each pantry that works with Food Bank of Iowa,

that that gets the benefit of our hard work and our resources,

that in return, they will provide one three day

supply of food to people within their geographic

service area once a month.

And there are some who say that that's asking too much.

What's what's your response to that?

You know, I don't think one day,

one three day supply of food is too much.

We have found that people

that are living in this space of food insecurity,

they're appreciative, they're grateful,

and they take what they need for themselves and their families.

There's no data to prove that they would take too much

if given the opportunity to take too much on.

And some reporting refers to the fact

that an average person comes into the food

pantry system

That's the data that's been available to us.

So we don't believe it's too much of the 300 pantries

we work with, 290 readily signed the agreement

and chose to work forward

walk forward with us in serving food insecure Iowans

and in other cases, we're looking for new pantry partners.

We already have multiple points of service.

The ten that opted out of the contract with Food Bank of Iowa.

All right.

Here in the metro, we have another 77 pantries right here.

Kim, if you had a wish list, are there products

that you would like to buy but you're unable to do so

because donations have fallen below

the level that would allow you to buy those products.

I would love to be able to have a plethora of meat available.

I think that's probably the biggest thing.

You know, we always say for donations,

we'd like to have peanut butter

and canned fish, canned chicken, all of those things.

But honestly, I'd really love to have tubs of ground beef

and ground chicken and a whole chickens and parts of chicken

that we can provide.

That is something that's often limited at pantries

because there just isn't enough meat available to purchase.

It's expensive to purchase,

expensive for us to purchase, says,

even though when we buy in bulk, we get a discount.

So that's definitely

the thing I would say is I'd love to have meat for everybody.

And we did during COVID with USDA,

we were getting a lot of meat products

and also prior to inflation

we were getting a lot of

donations from

meat retailers and processors, but some of that's dried up.

But you're right, if we if it were Christmas,

I just want, you know, tons of ground beef and ground pork.

And the second thing

and you didn't ask for, too, but I'll give it to.

Is. Fresh food.

So we're really focusing on having more

healthy options available, locally grown items as well.

But I would love to be able

to have potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers,

onions and carrots every single day

so that everybody could have

as much of those regular items as much as possible.

And they're expensive.

I talked to a mother last week.

She said a bag of apples was $10.

Do I spend that $10 on a bag of apples or ramen noodles?

Next month, the legislators are going to be

returning to Des Moines for a 2023 legislative session.

If you had the ear of lawmakers, what would you say is needed

for food insecure Iowans and to help your organizations?

Kim, I'll start with you.

I think we need to increase SNAP funding.

We need to make sure that the amount of funding

that's provided for families that are accessing SNAP

is is that amount that they can purchase their groceries with.

That, I think, is the most important.

We'd also love to see

increased funding for

us to be able to continue to purchase local food.

But having as much food available

as is what really matters at this point.

Yeah, we know SNAP lists families up and out of poverty.

We saw during the course of COVID

when there were maximum SNAP

benefits available by the federal government.

We'd love to return to that level of support and SNAP

helps families who are they're working

or they're training for work

or they're on disability of some sort.

So it's a great benefit.

There's a ripple effect in the economy of 1.5

$0.04 per dollar or $0.54 per dollar ripple effect.

The other thing I'd love to see State of Iowa do

is provide free breakfast and lunch to all of our kids.

in Iowa today qualify for USDA free and reduced price

breakfast and lunch.

But I think there are many more that whose parents

probably haven't filled out the paperwork.

But I do think every kid should come to school, able

to have breakfast and lunch.

But they're the future. That's our workforce.

We've got to invest in the kids, in their education.

We're getting down to our last minute or so here.

So real quick and you mentioned Michelle,

the snap benefits and they were increased

a little bit during the pandemic.

And then earlier this year, Governor Reynolds

ended that expansion and returned them to previous levels.

Is it safe to assume you would have preferred

that higher level two to stay longer and or.

I think I even heard you say I've returned to that.

Yeah, certainly what

we would have preferred, that's about $28 million a month

that we turn back to the federal government

when that proclamation was not moved forward.

So $28 million a month into our state economy

through our grocery store network was it was a big impact.

And it kept families up and out of poverty.

There's got to be something maybe we won't get

back to that level, but there's got to be something

between where we are today,

where average SNAP benefit is minimal up to that family's

lost about $200 a month when that decrease was enacted.

Kim, about 10 seconds left.

If people have been watching this

and they want to help, has best to do so.

I would say get involved.

There's a local pantry in your community or neighborhood.

Go talk to them, see what they need.

From a donation standpoint, maybe it's food,

maybe it's volunteers, and maybe it's funding.

And you can also get connected

with any of our food banks across the state as well.

Well, thank you both for joining us here today.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

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of Iowa's communities, and they are backed

by Iowa banks with advice, loans and financial services.

Banks across Iowa are committed

to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow.

Learn more at Iowa Bankers dot com.