Iowa food banks struggle with limited food availability and high demand

More than half of the freezers in Council Bluffs’ Care and Share Pantry are empty.

It’s usually full of meat, but manager Carol Thin said it was difficult to get all the protein the organization needed. It said it has seen a nearly 50% increase in customers compared to this time last year — outstripping demand levels at the height of the pandemic. About a quarter of these customers are completely new.

While inflation is driving up food prices, food pantries across Iowa are seeing increased demand for their services. But it comes at a time when many food banks are having trouble keeping their shelves full.

Courtesy of Care and Share Pantry Facebook

The Care and Share store is located in Council Bluffs. Volunteer Manager Carol Thin said the organization was having trouble staying full.

“Of course, food stores, we’re all seeing an increase in utility costs, truck rentals to get food and pay for fuel,” she said. “So this is just a few dollars available to buy food. But we are not going to let that stop us.”

With pandemic assistance ending, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reduced the amount of food it provides to feed US food banks. The organization’s food banks saw a 20% decrease in manufacturing donations and a 45% decrease in federal goods in fiscal 2022.

At the same time, Iowa residents who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits no longer receive additional assistance associated with epidemic control assistance. The change in April means $95 less a month for about 140,000 families in Iowa.

The inflation rate in May was 8.6% – the highest level since the winter of 1981. Food prices rose by 14% in the prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Everyone contributes longer lines and new faces to food pantries across the state, said Iowa Food Bank CEO Michael Buck.

“Because the federal government and the state government think we’re back to normal, that doesn’t make it so,” Bock said. “We are not back to normal. The effects of COVID on people living around poverty will remain for years.”

Siouxland Food Bank CEO Jacob Underscheid said the organization spends 15% more on food than average.
Siouxland Food Bank CEO Jacob Underscheid said the organization spends 15% more on food than average.

Furthermore, many organizations are seeing lower food donations. To fill the gap, food banks have to buy more food. Booker said the Iowa Food Bank is spending ten times more on food than it did in 2019. In addition, the organization is paying nearly twice as much to move food to 700 partner agencies across 55 Iowa counties.

Siouxland Food Bank CEO Jacob Wandershead said the Western Food Bank in Iowa spends 15% more on food than the average for a year. The result is a limit on the number of people food banks can serve.

“We can’t serve that many end users,” he said. “So guests in food pantries may see little in the basket they receive, and we may not necessarily be able to stay open the whole time we advertise a pantry window.”

“We are not back to normal. The effects of COVID on people living around poverty will remain for years.”

Michelle Bock, CEO of the Iowa Food Bank

In her ten years of experience in the food pantry at Council Bluffs, Thane said she has never seen such a shortage of food available. In the past, she said, she used to scroll through 20 to 30 pages of food options on the USDA website.

“In the last couple of months, when I go to get into the site, there might be eight to ten items,” she said. “And in the past two weeks, when I arrived, there were two to three items on the webpage.”

It leaves Thane wondering if Care and Share Pantry should cut back on the food they serve daily. She said she didn’t want to downsize, but wanted to make sure her shelves could stay stocked for the long term.

“The level of poverty is visible to all of us,” Thane said. “It is worrying. It is very worrying.”

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