Over the last year or two, Program Officers at the Community Foundation have noted a significant increase in the number of grant applications aimed at reducing food insecurity in Linn County. As families struggle to afford basic necessities, the nonprofit organizations that serve them face new challenges—but are responding with innovation and collaboration.
The reasons behind the increase in food insecurity are complex. Food, housing, and other goods and services are more expensive than ever, and pandemic-era programs and tax credits have expired, creating a sort of financial cliff for many families.
“Food pantries across the state saw a marked increase in need in 2022 after the extended child tax credit ended in December 2021,” said Nicole McAlexander, Executive Director of the Southeast Linn Community Center (SELCC), which operates a food pantry in Lisbon. “Another significant increase happened in the spring of 2022 after Iowa ended the emergency declaration and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits reverted to pre-pandemic levels.”
At the same time, Nicole explained, less food has been available through USDA programs and inventory at food banks has been low. Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) is a food bank that provides food for pantries in seven counties in Eastern Iowa.
“Unfortunately, the rising cost of food and transportation is hurting local agencies including our food bank,” said Kim Guardado, Food Reservoir Director at HACAP. “Though we’ve seen an increase in donated food from local retail and manufacturers, we’ve been purchasing 14 times the amount of food we purchased just four years ago.”
Pantries are seeing similar impacts from the higher costs and increased need. Since 2020, SELCC’s yearly food pantry expenses have increased 520%.
Certain groups have been disproportionately impacted by these issues. In rural areas, access to reduced-price grocery stores is limited, transportation costs are higher, and wages for local jobs are often less competitive. Nicole noted that more than 10% of people in Mount Vernon and Lisbon utilize the SELCC pantry.
Immigrants and refugees also face unique challenges, as even pantries do not always have culturally relevant food. Feed Iowa First works to help newer Americans access farmable land and foods they are accustomed to preparing and eating.
“Feed Iowa First has observed a clear uptick in the immigrant community using our services,” said Emmaly Renshaw, Executive Director. “In some cases, we are the sole distributor of culturally significant vegetables in the community.”
Emmaly also noted that Feed Iowa First is serving an increasing number of families that are considered middle-class. Many families who earn too much to qualify for food assistance are still not earning enough to get by.
Those working and volunteering at food pantries and programs note the importance of collaboration in responding to this complex issue. Kim pointed out that feeding people isn’t enough.
“We need things like access to affordable health care, quality education, reliable transportation, safe neighborhoods where they can live work and play, and strong social supports,” Kim said. “Together, these things will ensure our neighbors have what they need to promote economic stability and healthy, thriving households.”
As one example of collaboration, Feed Iowa First partners with local businesses and organizations to grow food on otherwise unused land. The program is called Grow Don’t Mow and provided some 19,000 pounds of produce in 2022.
“We are excited to see more partnerships between organizations and health partners to address the growing issue of food insecurity in our community,” Emmaly said. “This work will only move forward if we look beyond our own capacities and work together.”
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