WATERLOO — Steve Mohling is going over a shopping list in his head as he pushes a cart packed with eight gallons of milk through the aisles of the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.
The 45,359-square-foot facility is the newest addition to the state’s network of food banks. It’ll serve an estimated 40,000 people in a 16-county area each year, but the Northeast Iowa Food Bank — like the entire network — is under pressure from a rising client base that’s only expected to grow when Congress returns from its winter break and likely cuts food aid in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in the farm bill by $8 billion.
“Did you get some of the pumpkins?” Food Bank Director Barb Prather asks Mohling, motioning to a box just outside the market doors.
“Oh, no,” he replies. “They look good.”
“They are,” she responds.
It takes Mohling another 10 minutes to load up the black Jeep for the four-mile trip back to Pathways, a substance abuse and mental health rehabilitation outfit where he works. The food is being bought for the organization’s residential clients.
Mohling’s haul this day is 27 pounds of meat, 59 pounds of dairy, canned goods, pasta and, yes, some pumpkins, for a total of 300 pounds of food.
New term for old problem
The term “food insecure” has replaced “poor and hungry” in the national discussion, but it means the same thing: People who are food insecure do not have physical or economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.
On average, 12.6 percent of Iowans were food insecure in 2010-12, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in September. That’s less than the national average of 14.7 percent on a scale that ranges from the low of 8.7 percent in North Dakota to a high of 20.9 percent in Mississippi.
Experts say the recession of the late 2000s pushed people into food insecurity and many of the most vulnerable — the elderly and the young — haven’t been able to recover.
The figures also were compiled before a $5.5 billion cut in SNAP took effect in November.
“Nobody knows exactly, but our best estimate is all the food charity in the country — from the churches and mosques to everything — is between $4 billion and $5 billion a year,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a national advocacy group for the hungry and poor. “So in that one cut, that essentially eliminated a year’s worth of private food aid.”
Bulk purchases like the one Mohling made, Prather said, are available only to certain nonprofit organizations, including Pathways. Another section of the food bank serves walk-in customers who are allowed to pick a limited number of food items off metal-framed shelves depending on their need. People are assigned numbers based on income and family size and signs taped to the shelves direct them to how much they can take.
For instance, someone with a No. 1 may select three cans of vegetables, while a No. 4 gets two.
Northeast’s budget has grown from $1.8 million a year five years ago to $2.5 million this fiscal year. Some of that growth has to do with the new building, but a big portion, Prather said, is purchasing food for an increasing client base when food donations fall short.
It’s an issue the eight food banks operating in the state each face.
The Food Bank of Siouxland, which serves 11 counties in Iowa and Nebraska, has gone from 1.3 million pounds of food distributed in 2009 to 1.8 million pounds this fiscal year. River Bend Foodbank, which operates in 22 counties in Illinois and Iowa and includes the Quad-Cities, has added nearly a million dollars to its budget since 2010, going from $1.3 million then to a projected $2.2 million budget projected for 2014.
Last year, said River Bend Executive Director Tom Laughlin, the food bank distributed 8 million pounds of food, up from 7 million last year. Laughlin said the November cut in SNAP benefits led to more business at food pantries.
“They’re telling us on the front lines of it we’re seeing a 10 percent increase,” he said last month.
Amanda Pieper, director of The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program’s Food Reservoir, said the agency is more dependent on private donations — 98 percent of budget compared to 95 percent — than it was five years ago, but that’s been squeezed as well.
“Overall, the donations have slowly decreased over the past five years while the need has (risen) to that state in which we face today,” Pieper said in an email. “Rural needs have definitely become more prevalent, but I wouldn’t necessarily say they’ve ‘increased.’ I believe they were always there, and we now have better relationships with rural areas to be able to provide resources to them.”
Prather, who also is chairwoman of the Iowa Food Bank Association, said the way donations come in has changed.
Big-box retailers with grocery stores make up a much larger part of the donation pie than ever before. They’ve helped mitigate reductions from other places.
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“Manufacturers who once gave us a load a month, now only give us product every few months,” she said. “They are tightening up the way they do business. This means we have to look for alternate resources.”
She said the prospect of more cuts in SNAP means food banks will have to do more to become more efficient and “raise awareness of the issue” in their communities.
“There is a misconception that food banks will make up the difference if SNAP benefits are cut. This is simply not true,” said Sara Sciammacco, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Food Policy Action, which publishes a Congressional Report Card on hunger issues each year. “In the last several years, food pantries have seen a steady uptick in demand, while the economic downturn has meant less food to go around in many areas across the country.”
In the Quad-Cities, the increased demand is evident at food pantries, big and small.
At the Buffalo Food Pantry, where a half dozen families came in a few years ago, now it’s between 15 and 21, said Joanne Weintraut, the coordinator.
“I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the economy," she said.
Finding money, or donations, at a time of an increasing client base is a constant challenge in the Quad-Cities, some involved in the effort say. Laughlin predicted further SNAP cuts would increase demand. But that didn’t mean a special effort to increase its supplies. That already goes on, he says. “Our mindset is always get more food.”
At the Sacred Heart Food Pantry in Rock Island, 1,200 families are served per week. Mike Clark, the coordinator there, said a network of parishioners, other churches and a food pantry club donate money. Sometimes, however, donations can go away. Clark said a family who had given anonymously in the past did not do so last year.
“We’re hoping for more,” he said.
The University of Northern Iowa’s Kamyar Enshayan has been working on the problem of food insecurity through a program that supports local gardening and connects local farmers with customers.
The local food program operates in a seven-county area, and since 1997, it has sent $2.7 million in locally grown food to market.
But, he said, it’s not a panacea.
“The idea that there are 5,400 children in Iowa that are food insecure, that’s deplorable. That’s not acceptable,” he said. “There needs to be a whole different set of solutions; it’s a social justice issue that’s not going to be solved by people with more gardening.”