OTTUMWA — Southeast Iowa has suffered from food insecurity for years, and a combination of agencies are banding together to dig into the root of the problem.
Leaders of various organizations attended a meet-and-greet at Hotel Ottumwa Monday afternoon to discuss the possibility of creating a food insecurity consortium. The meeting was organized by the Food Bank of Southern Iowa and Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation.
Statistics of food insecurity in southeast Iowa flashed on a screen, highlighting the area's unemployment, lack of access to healthy foods, county health rankings and more. Currently, Wapello County ranks as the 91st healthiest county in Iowa, a low ranking maintained in this corner of the state for years.
"Enter [Ron] Brickey and other [food bank] board members about how to put together a fund that did more than put food in people's hands and give us the flexibility to provide items that are harder to come by," said ORLF president and CEO Brad Little.
This led to ORLF awarding the food bank a $100,000 revolving food fund grant in December. The fund allows the food bank to purchase staple foods and food from wholesalers to re-sell to pantries at discount prices.
"This conversation is about sustainability ... about making something that lasts," Little said.
The goal of the consortium is to convene a variety of organizations to tackle food insecurity and related issues in southeast Iowa.
"But Legacy doesn't want to be just a community checkbook," said Tom Lazio, chair of the ORLF board. "We want to invest in projects that will make an impact. Here we are in the middle of the Bread Basket of the United States and yet we have one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country."
Neal Abbott, executive director of the food bank, said in his 13-county service area, there are approximately 70,000 in poverty.
"The great thing about the revolving food fund is the money's always going to be there, so the food is always going to be there," Abbott said.
But this is about so much more than just food insecurity, everyone noted.
"The families I work with, their issues are related to food as well as employment," said Jeff Hasley of the Southern Iowa Economic Development Association (SIEDA). "I'm interested in moving that needle. Instead of giving a fish to a family, it's about teaching them how to fish."
The meeting included school principals, religious leaders, grocery store directors, elected officials and more.
"I think we could be a good fit," said Christina Schark, executive director of the Southern Iowa Mental Health Center. "You have to treat the whole person and body. It's hard for mental health to get better if you're hungry or need shelter or clothing or a job."
Ottumwa Housing Authority director Dan Stroda said he also sees hunger in his line of work. Out of the nearly 3,000 renting in Ottumwa, 20-25 percent of those are low income and need OHA assistance.
Monday was the first of three meetings designed to hone in on what people and organizations need to be involved and combined, what they can do to search for solutions to food insecurity and the larger related problems.
"I don't know how those in need do it, quite frankly," Little said. "They learn how to catch a bus, get to a free medical clinic, what to do when their utilities are shut off. Every penny we have will not fix the problem we have and make us go upstream. But let's check our biases and turf at the door and come together."