OTTUMWA — Worse than being unaware of the Southeast Iowa Food Bank existence are those residents oblivious to neighbors going hungry around them.
The food bank executive director, Neil Abbott, said there are people going hungry — many of them children — in Wapello and surrounding counties. And while the agency is participating in an awareness month for food banks, he said he and his board always remember where their priorities are.
"You've got to feed the kids," he said Tuesday.
He's happy with the "Scan for September" project because it helps feed the hungry and raise awareness of the Southeast Iowa Food Bank at the same time.
"If [donors] take a [donation] card, they can donate $1 or $10 at the checkout," said Adie Morrow, the food bank's Americorps volunteer.
Morrow, who is in charge of the Scan for September initiative, said cards with bar codes for scanning are available at the three Hy-Vee stores in Ottumwa. For those who just want to drop off spare change, there are containers at Hy-Vee and at Ottumwa Casey's stores, she said.
She wants people, especially kids, to see how "small change" can add up. Drop off a pound of pennies — roughly 163 of them depending on year — and that $1.63 allows the food bank to "buy over 10 pounds of food to feed the hungry."
That's because the director is able to purchase food in bulk through his food bank organization. He spends only about 14 cents a pound. Abbott can get an awful lot of food when people donate money, he said. The food purchased by the Southeast Iowa Food Bank is then distributed to "food pantries" throughout the region. The "bank" doesn't serve individuals; it's the warehouse for the pantries.
Morrow gets how it works. When she was training for Americorps, she said, she noticed she was one of the older volunteers.
"I've had to use a food pantry," she said.
One community service agency in a nearby county didn't want their pantry to join with the food bank in receiving food. They fear they'll be stuck with a bunch of bulk food items no one wants.
"I was able to explain to her the stuff I picked up at the food pantry in Albia and how it helped me," Morrow said.
She's also not as judgmental as some other volunteers might be. But there are limits. A family that seems to have money for cigarettes or cable television but can't buy shoes for their child seems pretty hard to defend, she said. Abbott acknowledged that caring people still get frustrated when they hear about the rare individual who takes advantage of the system or wastes money they could have spent on groceries.
"There are people who make enough but they blow it at the casino. Still, the kids shouldn't have to suffer. The kids need food."
Most of the people who use a food pantry are genuinely deserving of help, he emphasized. Morrow referred to them as "the working poor," which she says encompasses a large number of everyday Americans.
"These are the people who may make enough money, but they run into trouble," Abbott said, listing sudden medical expenses or car repair bills as being enough to drain any savings they had, as well as draining grocery money for some families.
September is Hunger Action Month, Abbott said, explaining that the Iowa Food Bank Association and Gov. Terry Branstad are working to inspire Iowans "to take action to help … people who are food insecure." This is a good time to tell their story, Abbott said, using activities like the card scanning at the grocery store.
"We need to build awareness of why we're here, what we do and why we do it," he said.
— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark