As holidays approach, Iowa food pantries see increased demand

Dec 17, 2013

The holiday season is always a busy time for Iowa food pantries, but federal cuts have led to an increased need this year. As Iowa Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren reports, they’re expecting even harder times ahead.

As workers pack a van destined for a food pantry in North Liberty, food reservoir director Amanda Pieper walks the aisles of the distribution center that supplies 89 food pantries in Eastern Iowa.

"You see a lot of empty shelves… It's a good problem and a bad problem to have. It's good that it’s moving, bad that it’s not coming in."

The warehouse north of Cedar Rapids distributes food for seven counties. Pieper says that during the economy’s sluggish recovery, demand for food assistance has grown steadily over the past three years.

"But we’re hopeful. It’s the holiday season, we’ll make it through."

This year, they’re already on track to distribute three million pounds of food… that’s nearly a million more pounds than just three years ago. Pieper says the food reservoir’s partner agencies served about 4,000 more households in 2013 than the year before.

"It’s that one medical bill, that one car repair, losing a job or getting hours cut back. They’ve always had means to make ends meet, and now they’re starting to see their resources run out." 

In November, the food reservoir increased its distribution by about 20,000 pounds of food a week. Pieper attributes part of that demand to some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits being cut when federal stimulus money stopped flowing.

For some families, it was just a few dollars taken off their monthly allotment--for others it was more.

That’s what happened to Hien Hoang, who moved to Iowa from Vietnam twenty years ago and waited outside the Crisis Center of Johnson County before it opened for the day.

"It cut me and my wife off for $24 dollars a month," Hoang said. "But I can come here and get food, I have no complaints." 

The doors open, and a line of people come in from the cold. Food pantries typically see an increased demand during the winter months, when seasonal jobs end and heating bills spike.

But further cuts to SNAP are expected when the farm bill is passed, so service providers are expecting demand to grow even higher. 

Food Bank Director Sarah Benson-Witry says she’s been seeing families who saw their salaried jobs with benefits turn into hourly or part time work during the recession. She says those jobs haven’t come back in many cases, despite the recovery.

"Their hours might be unpredictable. That makes it hard to get a second job and still plan, they also don’t know what their income is going to be from month to month," Benson-Witry said. 

Iowa City has a higher cost of living than many parts of the state—Benson-Witry says that takes a toll on low wage workers.

"The economy for low income workers has not bounced back," Benson-Witry said. "It’s stayed just as bad as it was at the start of the recession."