In March, Kelli Greenland faced a devil of a choice – should she accept a retail job as an essential worker, or should she remain home to keep her medically fragile son safe from exposure to the novel coronavirus?
The West Des Moines mother of two decided to stay home initially. Greenland relied heavily on food pantries to feed her family, which includes son Ethan, 7, who has asthma, and daughter Skylynn, 4, who is lactose intolerant.
The family had used food pantries previously, but “not like we’ve had to this year,” Greenland, 30, said.
“Definitely, 2020 has been a ride, from not being able to get food in-stock in the beginning in the grocery stores to not being able to go to the stores because my son has severe asthma, and the possibility of exposing him,” Greenland said.
Iowa food pantries have tried to fill the gap for families like Greenland’s, but the pantries themselves have faced unprecedented challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers and food insecurity increases in the state and nationwide.
Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the country, estimates that 12.8% of Iowans were living with food insecurity as of October, up from 9.7% in 2018, which is the most recent data available.
Food insecurity experts interviewed by IowaWatch are concerned the situation in Iowa could get substantially worse this winter, and they’re calling on state and federal lawmakers to rush additional aid to families in need of food.
“When we look at a deficit of food going forward, the state has to get into the game,” said Michelle Book, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa, which serves 634 partners in a 55-county region in central, southern and southeastern Iowa.
The organization’s five regional food banks — the River Bend Foodbank in Davenport, the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, HACAP Food Reservoir in Hiawatha, the Northeast Iowa Food Bank in Waterloo, and the Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha — distributed 33 million meals in all of 2019; that number was 41 million through the first 11 months of 2020.
The Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, using census survey data, said the state’s estimated rate of food insecurity rose from 7% in February to 19.2% for April and May – about 2.7 times as many Iowans. Only three states had a higher ratio between the two dates, although 35 states and the District of Columbia had estimated April-May rates higher than Iowa’s.
The estimates from the weekly census data have mostly tracked a few percentage points below the national average throughout the pandemic.
Anti-hunger advocates fretted for weeks about a Dec. 31 deadline for state and local governments to spend federal aid provided in the spring through the CARES Act and the prospect for supplemental aid to individuals and social services agencies to vanish.
But the new relief measure Congress passed Dec. 21 extended the deadline. Stimulus payments to individuals and $13 billion for expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits could stave off some growth in hunger temporarily, too.
The concept of food insecurity itself can be difficult for people to grasp if they haven’t experienced it, said Book, the Food Bank of Iowa president. She fears the term “food insecurity” has become a buzz word, she said.
“The fact is, these are people that don’t have food in the refrigerator, they don’t have crackers in their cupboard, and they don’t know what they’re having for dinner tonight, if anything,” Book said.
Even in non-pandemic years, the months immediately following the holidays are typically the most challenging for people living in poverty, Book said. Utility bills increase. Public consciousness of hunger fades. State data show over 300,000 Iowans live in poverty.
Iowans tend to be generous during November and December, but, “all of a sudden, after the holidays, that stuff dries up. But food insecurity does not dry up,” Book said. “In fact, I would say January and February are some of the bleakest months for food insecurity.”
CHANGES IN FOOD DEMAND
Dozens of Iowa food pantry representatives interviewed by IowaWatch reported a dramatic surge in demand last March. For some food pantries, particularly in rural areas, the increased demand never dropped off, they reported.
Other pantries reported a decrease in demand during the first spike. Some of their longtime patrons disappeared, replaced by new faces.
“What was driving the attendance at our pantries was new people – folks that have never used one of our pantries before, a large, large proportion of which were newly unemployed, disproportionately made up from the Latinx community,” said Matt Unger, chief executive officer of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, or DMARC, which has 14 partner food pantries in central Iowa.
Almost all Iowa food pantries contacted by IowaWatch reported an increase in first-time food recipients – new families who had never visited them before the pandemic hit. Several pantries provided detailed monthly data tracing similar stories: some fluctuation in households served as COVID-19 began to spread, and rising demand toward the end of 2020.
That means Iowa food pantries could see unprecedented demand this winter.
“We’re getting closer to where we were before the pandemic hit,” said Andrea Cook, program director at the Partnership Place in Johnston, a DMARC member food pantry. Cook has seen families who haven’t visited a DMARC network pantry in five or six years, she said.
Partnership Place is delivering food weekly to residents living in low-income senior housing just up the road. They’ve also started working with high school volunteers, who are generally considered a lower-risk population, to deliver.
Despite the risk to staff members and volunteers – many of whom are elderly – of potentially contracting COVID-19, most Iowa food pantries have found ways to adapt, including a drive-through model and grouping volunteers to limit exposure.
“Once COVID hit, then we had to regroup,” said Linda Urick, a volunteer at the food pantry at Morningside Lutheran Church in Sioux City. “Because even though the church wasn’t open, we still had to supply that food for those people. We were not going to shut down because of it. We just had to find an alternative way to do it.”
CHALLENGES: THE ECONOMY
The vaccines for COVID-19 will not make a substantial impact on the economy, which is closely tied to food insecurity, experts said.
“People think the vaccine is going to be a panacea. Unh-uh,” said Book.
Feeding America has studied past recessions and their relationship to food insecurity.
“They’re telling us, here at the food bank level, plan on food insecurity continuing to increase through most likely 2024, and it’s unlikely to decrease again to pre-recession levels until ’27, ’28. This is going to be a long haul,” Book said.
Iowa’s unemployment rate rose above 10% in March and April, state data show. People who have been unemployed are now disconnected from the system, Book said.
“The poorest, the people that were just on the edge before COVID, they have now been thrust squarely into poverty. And, you don’t get out of that. You don’t climb out of that quickly,” she said.
Helen Jensen, professor emerita of economics at Iowa State University in Ames, said there is some historical evidence – mainly, the Great Recession of 2008 – for what comes next.
“The macro forces and the response in terms of delivery of additional social assistance … they track pretty closely. That said, there are some unique aspects about the way that the layoffs have occurred,” Jensen said.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the service industry – restaurants, bars, entertainment venues. There isn’t a lot of precedent for that, she said.
Still, Jensen said she expects the economy to improve in 2021.
“The overall economic situation will be better. There will be better unemployment rates, and that should improve food insecurity. Those are all pretty big hopes, and just the numbers I’ve seen indicate a depressed economy for some time. So yes, it will be better. But it won’t be back to pre-COVID levels for several years,” Jensen said.
The unemployment rate for November in Iowa was 3.6%, although labor force participation and the number of jobs both declined from October. December numbers were not released at time of publication.
CHALLENGES: HEALTH, SAFETY AND DISINFECTING
Utoni Ruff is on her pantry’s third doorbell and second doorknob since the pandemic began. The previous doorbells and doorknobs have corroded because she sprays Lysol on objects that are touched frequently.
Ruff, the supervisor of the Clayton County Food Shelf in St. Olaf, made changes starting on March 17. She ended the pantry’s in-store shopping, installing the very first doorbell at the entrance and putting up signage that said, “Caution, do not enter.” Food recipients now wait outside to receive their distribution.
She dismissed her food pantry volunteers to minimize risk. She now shares all the work with her husband and her daughter, a high school student who has recorded more than 300 volunteer hours at the food pantry.
“I have a lot of people wanting to volunteer. I just can’t let everybody in, or I would have had it by now. Thankfully, me, my husband and my daughter have all been healthy through all this,” she said.
Ruff continues to sanitize everything, including the shopping carts used to transport food.
“My shopping carts are rusting away from all the sanitizing. Eventually, I’m going to need some more carts,” she said.
Before the pandemic hit in March, the Food Shelf provided food and other supplies to about 84 households per month. (Pantries frequently relate data in terms of the number of households served, though many also track the number of individuals served.)
“Within a few months, I spiked at 210 families per month,” Ruff said.
Now, the food pantry averages 174 households per month, she said.
Monetary donations have mostly kept pace with the increase in demand, she said.
CHALLENGES: FACILITY CHANGES
For 15 years, the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Cedar Rapids operated out of an old mission house owned by the Westminster Presbyterian Church near downtown. Some food was stuffed into closets, and volunteers shuffled between small rooms.
Loaves and Fishes was an open pantry, which meant recipients could come into the house and make their own food selections. The pandemic changed that, said Jan Kosowski, the pantry’s director.
“The two initial impacts were there was no choice, and people weren’t allowed to come into the house. And then we started having concerns about our volunteers. Our volunteers probably dropped in half,” Kosowski said.
Tent-like awnings were purchased in mid-May, and the pantry moved to an outdoors model. But with the pandemic stretching indefinitely and the weather starting to change, Kosowski knew she needed a new plan. In November, Westminster signed a one-year lease, and Loaves and Fishes moved into old medical offices just a few blocks away from the house.
But the move came at a price. There was no rent to pay in the mission house. They’re now burning through the $30,000 in seed money that might have gone toward eventually building a pantry facility. But with two shrinking churches, it isn’t clear that would have come to fruition, Kosowski said. She said it doesn’t seem unreasonable to spend the money in this way.
“In order to continue the mission, we had to social distance. And in order to social distance, we needed a new location,” she said.
Other food pantries in the Cedar Rapids area and elsewhere in Iowa saw their facilities damaged or destroyed by the derecho in August.
CHALLENGES: FOOD SHORTAGES
Some Iowa pantries reported struggling to find certain food and paper items as the supply chain was affected by increased demand and, at times, panic-buying by consumers.
Urick, the volunteer at the food pantry at Morningside Lutheran Church in Sioux City, said her pantry buys most of its food from the Food Bank of Siouxland in Sioux City. The supply there has been inconsistent lately, she said.
Her food pantry gave out chickens instead of turkeys for Thanksgiving in 2020 because turkeys weren’t available. The food pantry has dealt with ongoing shortages, too.
“It’s really been the general supply, like canned foods, trying to get green beans, corn, things like that. That’s been a real shortage. Some weeks we can get it. Some weeks we can’t,” Urick said. “And we always try to keep as much on hand as possible because they’ve not been receiving a lot. Some weeks we can get bread, some weeks we can’t.”
WHAT IOWANS CAN DO TO HELP
Food pantry staff members and volunteers emphasized that monetary donations are always preferable to food ones – they can stretch a dollar further than a regular consumer can. That skill is even more valuable because food prices soared early in the pandemic and aren’t expected to go down anytime soon.
“We don’t encourage people to bring the canned foods and stuff, because 90% of the time they’re expired and we have to throw them away,” said Urick.
Volunteers are also needed, especially those who don’t fall into high-risk categories in terms of COVID-19, pantry representatives said.
Donations of disinfectant wipes would be especially helpful, said Ruff, the supervisor of the Clayton County Food Shelf in St. Olaf. The wipes are still difficult to find in stores.
Book, of the Food Bank of Iowa, said one of the most important things that Iowans can do is just listen to the stories of people who don’t have enough food.
Last fall, she received a call from the principal of an elementary school, asking for help for a family.
“They had a little boy who came to school on Monday and was crying,” Book said. “He was hungry, and they called in the family, and it was a single dad who said, ‘Yeah, we haven’t had anything in the house over the weekend except for a box of cereal, and we put water on it.’ That’s food insecurity. Unless we tell the stories, people don’t get it.”
Nicole Grundmeier is a freelance reporter and writer for IowaWatch. She has previously worked as a reporter and copy editor for The Des Moines Register. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.