Increasingly desperate Iowans stretching food banks to capacity

Photo courtesy of Food Bank of Siouxland

By Amie Rivers

April 9, 2024

Leaders of a dozen food pantries across Iowa are sounding the alarm about a “soaring number” of Iowans seeking help at food banks, putting these already stretched organizations into a “crisis situation.”

The leaders and other advocates recently issued a joint press release about “a rising number of Iowans experiencing food insecurity” in the past two years, according to Linda Gorkow, Executive Director of the Iowa Food Bank Association.

Gorkow said that had put “an exceedingly high amount of pressure” on food pantries.

Iowa Hunger Coalition Board Chair Luke Elzinga agreed.

“Iowa is facing a crisis situation as it relates to hunger and food insecurity,” he said, adding that began in April 2022, when pandemic-era emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ended. “No matter where you look in the state of Iowa—urban, suburban, and rural areas—the story is the same.”

Iowa Republicans’ decision to restrict SNAP even further, plus Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to decline federal funding for the summer EBT program this year, haven’t helped matters.

This seems bad:

We’ll just let those who oversee food pantries around the state speak for themselves:

  • “Unfortunately, we see no ceiling in the immediate future,” said Michelle Book, CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa. “One in six working Iowa households can’t cover the cost of their basic needs. Food prices have increased 25% in the last four years. Housing prices have increased. And wages haven’t.”
  • “Today, more than one in three people utilizing the DMARC Food Pantry Network had previously never done so,” said Matt Unger, CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC). “People are desperate for us to find solutions that strengthen the systems they’re relying on during an incredibly challenging time … We need to start treating this like the emergency that it is.”
  • “Every week we see Iowans who have never had to utilize a pantry before coming to us for help,” said Nicole McAlexander, executive director of the Southeast Linn Community Center. “We cannot operate in crisis mode forever. We must have stronger support from our state in order to successfully fight hunger here at home.”
  • “The rise in need of emergency food assistance in Webster County is alarming,” said Melanie Fierke, executive director of The Lord’s Cupboard Community Pantry. “Before April 2022, we served an average of 500 people a month. By the end of 2022 we served over 850 people a month. In 2024, we are now helping 1,200 people a month with emergency food assistance.”
  • “We continue to break monthly records at our food pantry,” said Andrea Cook, Executive Director of the Johnston Partnership. “Every day we have new families who have never needed our services: some families who cannot figure out how they will feed their kids until the next paycheck arrives, some single adults who had an emergency medical event or car breakdown that spent any available money, some elderly who have been living paycheck to paycheck and costs have finally risen enough they cannot buy nutritious food plus pay rent.”

It goes on like this for a while!

  • “We have hard working individuals that are barely making ends meet with the current increased cost of food,” said Zuli Garcia, chief executive director of Knock and Drop Iowa. “We used to serve about 150 families a week and now we are serving around 250-300 families a week in a two-hour period.”
  • “We cannot ignore the alarming increase in need at food banks and pantries across the state,” said Mandi Remington, director of Corridor Community Action Network. “It’s well past time for our lawmakers to prioritize the well-being of our communities by taking concrete steps to address the underlying issues contributing to food insecurity.”
  • “Since pandemic credits have ended, food insecurity has risen dramatically, especially in families with young children who were the primary recipients of the credits,” said Julissa Garcia, education coordinator at Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center of Iowa. “This is especially poignant in refugee families who were already struggling to make ends meet.”
  • “Our ability to assist financially challenged families has been hindered by need outpacing available funding and services,” said Anne Bacon, CEO of IMPACT Community Action Partnership in central Iowa. “In February we saw an increase of 38% in households utilizing our food pantries. This level of increase without an equal or higher increase in funding or resources is unsustainable.”

Yes, there’s more:

  • “Where previously a lot of families used these supports to supplement their food supply several times a year, many are now needing this support weekly,” said Nicki Ross, executive director of Table to Table. “This intense and unsustainable shift has stretched the resources of all the food access programs in our county.”
  • “Food insecurity isn’t getting better in Johnson County—our numbers keep growing,” said Sara Barth, director of Support Services at CommUnity Crisis Services in Iowa City.
  • “Since adding a Little Free Pantry to Plymouth’s grounds in May 2023, volunteers are needing to fill the pantry every day, due to the increase of food insecurity in our community,” said Maggie Tillman, co-chair of the Food Pantry Committee at Plymouth Church in Des Moines. “The need is great and we are doing what we can to help our neighbors with their needs.”

“Ultimately, we need action from our federal, state, and local governments,” said Elzinga. “The charitable sector is stretched to a breaking point. We can’t continue to do this on our own.”

  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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