The Ottumwa Courier

October 31, 2012

Food banks find themselves in need

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Iowa’s poorest counties now have less emergency food for families fighting the economy — and hunger.

 “The food pantries are saying, ‘Where’s the food? Where’s the food?’ And we don’t have the food,” said Maureen Myshock, an AmeriCorps-VISTA volunteer helping at the Food Bank of Southern Iowa.

Residents struggling financially can normally get some emergency groceries at local food pantries. Those pantries get the bulk of their food from that central food bank, which has its warehouse in Ottumwa.

“[Even] with winter coming, the Food Bank of Southern Iowa is unable to meet the volume of food requested from our 160 [registered] agencies,” said Myshock. “Federal, corporate and local donations have declined over the past year.”

In the past, because of corporate donations, government commodity programs and individual gifts, the food bank only charges partners a shared maintenance fee of 14 cents a pound for food.

That means if someone donated $5, they’d be donating the equivalent of 35 lbs. of food to a local pantry.

The food bank is still charging 14 cents per pound. There just isn’t enough food.

Neil Abbott, executive director of the Food Bank of Southern Iowa, said he still meets mothers, even at his church in Ottumwa, who describe pouring a half gallon of milk into a one gallon container, which they then fill the rest of the way with tap water. That way, the kids can at least have some milk with part of the nutrition they need.

And yes, there are individuals who milk the system. In a recent visit to Ottumwa, Jordan Vernoy, director of the Iowa Food Bank Association, acknowledged that those are the wild stories the media loves to report on.

While the public may know there are people with disabilities unable to work, as well as isolated elderly having a hard time making their retirement check stretch until the end of the month, they may be surprised to find most food recipients are actually “the working poor.” They make just enough at their job to keep the heat on, the car insurance up-to-date, the rent paid and the refrigerator stocked.

At least they make enough until a surprise medical bill lands in their lap, the car breaks down or the boss responds to a slow economy by avoiding raises or reducing everyone’s hours.

That’s when a local food pantry — supplied by a central food bank — was able to make sure a family has milk for the kids and basics  like flour, ground beef or venison and cans of vegetables.

That ability is in question now, Myshock said.

The Food Bank of Southern Iowa serves 13 counties, including Appanoose, Davis, Jefferson, Keokuk, Mahaska, Monroe, Van Buren and Wapello counties.

Five of Iowa’s poorest counties are in the coverage area.

Charity and grocery store team up

The empty shelves at the food bank have prompted organizers to try something new.

“In the past, we had the food, so we didn’t need to have a fall fundraiser,” said Maureen Myshock, an AmeriCorps-VISTA volunteer helping at the Food Bank of Southern Iowa. “Corporate donations are down. In federal commodities, we’re down 20,000 pounds. We don’t have the food available to provide going into the winter, which is not a good scenario.”

They’re working with Hy-Vee to bring in both food and funding for food. Myshock said the plan is pretty simple: “Take a Scan for the Holiday card up to a Hy-Vee store cashier, state the amount of money you would like to donate; this donated amount will be added to your grocery bill.”

She said for those who are uncomfortable giving money, the other option at Hy-Vee is to pick up a prepackaged bag of food to be added to your grocery bill then, then set aside for the food bank.

The fall “Scan for the Holidays” fundraiser will run from Nov. 2 through the day of Thanksgiving.

And because they’re expecting a positive response, Myshock said, organizations with civic-minded volunteers available should contact her about scheduling some hours helping with various tasks.

“The food bank doesn’t have enough staff to [keep up with] three Hy-Vees in Ottumwa,” as well as Hy-Vee stores in Albia, Centerville and Fairfield.

And though the Oskaloosa store won’t collect food, they will have the scan cards, which can be brought to the register and marked with a donation.  

For more information and other ways to donate, call the Food Bank of Southern Iowa at 641-682-3403.