The Ottumwa Courier

Ottumwa

April 5, 2013

Hunger in America study to provide insight into southeast Iowa food insecurity

OTTUMWA — Once a person is entrenched in poverty and hunger, it’s difficult to break the cycle.

In the last Hunger in America study, which was published in 2010, the Food Bank of Iowa provided emergency food for around 76,100 people every year, 36 percent of which were children under 18.

For the first time, the 2014 study — a partnership between Feeding America and local food banks — will include southeast Iowa. The Food Bank of Southern Iowa will survey clients in its 13-county service area with volunteer recruitment provided by the United Way of Wapello County.

“We really haven’t changed that much, though we got some new agencies,” said Neal Abbott, executive director of the food bank. “This economy has gotten worse the last few years, and more churches are looking at opening food pantries to pass out food in their respective neighborhoods.”

Abbott believes there will always be a hunger problem, though he hopes the numbers will begin to tumble.

“I think what we have to try to work on is trying to find some way to get people in that situation beyond that situation,” he said. “That’s the biggest issue we have right now, is there are not a lot of jobs that pay enough to support a family and people get stuck in that situation. Once you’re in it, it’s tough to get out.”

United Way of Wapello County volunteer center coordinator Ali Wilson is hopeful.

“It’ll take awhile, but I think we’re working toward that through food pantries and kitchens,” she said. “At the national and state level we can talk about policies and programs that can make it possible for people to get out of that cycle. It’s hard once you’re in poverty. It’s so much harder to access the resources you need to get out of poverty. It does perpetuate itself sometimes.”

The Food Bank of Southern Iowa is a food wholesaler for 140 organizations in 13 southeast Iowa counties. The food bank’s low pricing means area pantries can buy larger quantities of food for less. Those who receive food include pantries, church camps, non-profit daycares, Christian schools, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and more.

“We’ve always been a real small organization and up until now ... we weren’t really involved,” Abbott said of the study. “This time Feeding America is pushing a nationwide effort so they get a wide footprint.”

While Abbott said the results of the study likely won’t shock him, there is one element that could surprise the public.

“What I think I might be surprised about is the number of people asking for food that I wouldn’t think would be, people who are a little better off,” he said. “We all know that with the price of food and gas, we all have to stretch our dollars. I know there’s people going to food banks and pantries now that never had to ask for help before.”

Wilson said the study is important because the data will be used to support “not only national advocacy, but also awareness here locally about what is really driving hunger in our area, what programs are out there and how well we’re serving the people who need their services.”

“It definitely is poverty,” Wilson said of what drives hunger in southeast Iowa. “But we also know there are a lot of people who are falling in between the cracks. They’re working, but they’re not making enough to be able to support their household.”

Not only will the data from the study aid research, it will benefit the volunteers who conduct the surveys, Wilson said.

“It’s eye-opening to see who’s really using these services,” she said. “It might not be the people they expect.”

Volunteers will begin training on April 16 and the surveys will be conducted over the next several months.

Recently, the food bank began having its clients write on paper plates, explaining why they’re there and what it means to get food from the food bank. Staff from the Food Bank of Iowa will then take the plates to legislators in Des Moines to open their eyes to the fact that food banks need more state funding.

“This food helps a lot because the last week of the month my fridge and cabinets are bare,” one plate from an Ottumwa pantry reads. “If it wasn’t for the churches, my kids probably would have very little to eat.”

Another plate reads: “Sometimes we get by with filling our bellies with oatmeal and crackers. Tonight we don’t have to do that. Thanks.”

There’s always a need for more funding, Abbott said. Last year the food bank distributed 1.5 million pounds of food in 13 counties, though it could have given out 3 to 4 million pounds of food had funding been available.

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