Food pantries in Rock Island County do a better job giving to those in need than their counterparts in Scott County, where the population is “tremendously underserved,” River Bend Foodbank executive director Mike Miller says.
The Davenport-based food bank, which distributes food to hunger agencies throughout a 22-county bistate area, keeps track of food provided annually to those in need. The most recent data available is from 2015.
Data for 2016 will be released Thursday as part of the food bank’s 35th anniversary, and Miller said the 2016 data shows the same discrepancy between the two counties.
The food bank’s data shows a much larger gap in getting food to those in need in Scott County versus Rock Island County. Rock Island meets 64 percent of the need, but Scott meets only 27 percent of the need, according to data.
“We haven’t ended hunger in Rock Island County, but we’re more than halfway there,” Miller said. “In Scott County, the unmet need is larger than in any of the other counties we serve. Right now, we’re trying to work with food pantries to try to close that gap in Scott County.”
Miller offered two reasons he thinks the discrepancy exists. For one, he said, there are not enough pantries to cover Scott County, which is the third most populous county in Iowa.
He also thinks the “traditional model” of an emergency food pantry that hands out about three days worth of food once a month — the model used by many local pantries — is not sufficient. The food bank provides a list of area pantries on its website.
“I eat more than three days a month,” Miller said.
He added that he appreciates the cooperation of church groups and other agencies that run the pantries.
“We cannot do what we’re doing without all those folks,” Miller said. “At the same time, we should figure out how to expand our distribution channels to meet the entire need. Giving someone three days worth of food and say, ‘Good luck,’ the rest of the month is not going to end hunger.”
Anne Wachal, whose organization, Churches United of the Quad-City Area, runs the largest network of food pantries in Scott and Rock Island counties, disagreed there aren’t enough of them around.
“There are plenty of emergency food pantries all over the greater Quad-City area,” she said. “If a person is hungry, there is a pantry for them to go to. There is a hot meal site for them to go to.”
Wachal, saying she was “surprised” at the discrepancy, thinks the underserved population mostly lives in rural areas, not the metro area.
Bettendorf, for instance, which has a population of 35,500, is served by two Churches United food pantries that basically divide the town in half. The one at St. James Lutheran Church, 1705 Oak St., covers the town west of 18th Street, and the one at the Bettendorf Community Center, 2204 Grant St., covers the town east of 18th.
According to Churches United’s rules, clients are supposed to go to the pantry in their geographic area. When they arrive, they’re supposed to provide a driver’s license or state ID and something to show proof of address, such as a utility bill.
Clients are supposed to visit their food pantries no more than once a month, and at each visit, volunteers supply them with three days to a week worth of food depending on the family size.
Wachal said her organization doesn’t have the resources to supply food on a more frequent basis, but she wonders if that is even the right thing to do.
“Should I be going to a food pantry weekly just because I can?” she asked, adding, “We’re not a convenience store.”
In an emergency
Wachal said the emergency pantry model was set up help people in a pinch “get over the hump” or supplement monthly SNAP benefits with food at no cost.
There are exceptions to the once-a-month rule, she said, citing examples such as a client experiencing job loss or other emergency situation.
No family, Wachal insists, has ever been turned away from a Churches United food pantry.
Dianna Taylor showed up at the Bettendorf Community Center’s pantry Friday morning with her 4-month-old daughter but no address to show where she lived. She said that days earlier she had to leave Ottumwa, Iowa, and brought her daughter and two sons back to Bettendorf to stay with her mother.
The pantry coordinator, Barb Emerson, didn’t hesitate to wheel up a shopping cart and begin filling it with cereal, bread, milk, canned goods and other items.
“I left in a hurry,” Taylor told the volunteers as they were filling the cart. “I grabbed what I absolutely needed.”
Taylor tried to calm her fussy baby, telling her how beautiful she is, while volunteers wheeled the full cart to the door. They even threw in a few children’s books.
“Just getting a little bit of help,” said Taylor, who was a stay-at-home mother in Ottumwa but didn’t want to elaborate on the situation that caused her to leave. “I’ve been put in a little bit of a bind, but I got to do what’s best for the kids.”
“No child should go to bed hungry,” said Emerson, who is going on her 13th year coordinating the pantry at Bettendorf Community Center.
Emerson said if someone shows up who does not live in the pantry’s geographic area, the client will be served and volunteers will direct the person where to go the next time. Every client fills out the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, card.
“We never send someone home with nothing, unless they were here yesterday,” Emerson said. “Even in those cases, here’s enough to get by. At the very least, here’s some bread, peanut butter and jelly, a box of cereal and milk. We try to make sure there’s enough to go around.”
Emerson’s pantry serves 100 families a month.
No reason to go hungry
Sherl Manning of Davenport, who doesn’t have a car, uses the bus to get to her pantry at St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2363 W. 3rd St., once a month. It’s an easy commute, she said.
“There is no reason anybody in the Quad-Cities should go hungry,” she said. “There is always some place you can go to get food.”
Manning thinks pride keeps some from going to food pantries. She had to swallow hers years ago.
Manning served time in prison on a third-degree theft conviction in Scott County. Coming out, she relied on the care of local agencies, including food and clothing pantries.
Now the 53-year-old wants to study to become a medical assistant and still drops in to her local food pantry once a month to stock up on bread and sweets for her grandchildren.
“It’s really heartwarming,” Manning said of the food outreach in her community.
Someone in need in the Quad-Cities can eat every day, said Betsy Vanausdeln, direct services coordinator at Churches United. In addition to food pantries, she cited many meal sites offering breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“There’s a hot meal every single day,” Vanausdeln said. “So there’s always another source.”
Vanausdeln took over the role of supervising Churches United’s food pantries from Wachal, who has gone on to become the agency’s executive director.
When Wachal joined the organization in 1999, it had 18 pantries. It opened seven new ones to meet the growing need in the area, including the need for bilingual pantries and those that can be open in the evenings and on weekends.
Churches United will reopen a food pantry in the Watertown neighborhood of East Moline soon. The organization also is opening a food pantry with one of the local colleges that, Vanausdeln said, will meet a growing need among college students and military veterans.
“It’s not ideal,” Wachal said. “But the whole reason we planned pantries that way is, first and foremost, to make sure all moral and just issues are reaching people in need. … What would Jesus say? Serve those underserved. That’s who we are.”