Recent data from Feeding America shows that over 400,000 Iowans are food insecure, or lack adequate access to a nutritional diet. Over 130,000 children are included in that statistic. Collectively, food insecure Iowans miss over 70 million meals a year. According to the Center for American Progress, the cost of hunger in Iowa in 2010 was $1.45 billion, an increase of 11.5 percent from 2007. Costs include a myriad of health conditions and lower educational productivity and lifetime earnings.
The Iowa Policy Project’s recent report on the cost of living in Iowa found that almost 23 percent of Iowa households are earning incomes below what is needed to meet basic living needs. In fact, 42 percent of food insecure Iowans are not eligible to receive federal food and nutrition assistance based on household income, but still lack the ability to provide the meals necessary for a healthy lifestyle. This data has translated to a 30 percent increase in food requests upon food banks, and some local food pantries have doubled the number of food insecure Iowans they see each time they distribute food.
When food banking began in the late 1960s, the emergency food system relied solely on highly-manufactured products or products nearing expiration that would normally be thrown away. Today, food banks acquire donated fresh and processed products from various sources, as well as through the USDA Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
Due to increased need and a decrease in donations from those traditional sources, food banks now purchase food products to ensure that there is enough to supply their food pantry network. Senator Danielson’s original bill proposed $2 million to support Iowa’s food banks. This number was decided upon through analyzing the work of 38 other states that have already supported similar programs, and observing the shortfall in TEFAP for the current fiscal year.
At the time, TEFAP commodities received by food banks were projected to be down 30 percent, or approximately $1.75 million worth of quality products for hungry Iowans. The current projection is closer to a 50 percent decrease.
Reductions in TEFAP are due to strong agricultural markets that create scant supplies of surplus products that the USDA normally purchases to provide to food banks. Iowa has benefited from this strong agricultural market, but food banks have felt the blow of drastically reduced commodities to provide to hungry Iowans.
The increase in need and decrease in food products has created a perfect storm for food banks and emergency food providers. Indeed many of the shelves are bare or filled with products with low nutritional value. Rising concerns about nutrition has motivated food banks to expand their food purchase program to ensure that food insecure Iowans have access to healthy foods rather than simply filling stomachs with empty calories. Some emergency food providers purchase fresh products directly from Iowa farmers, thereby localizing their purchasing power.
Given the critical need of Iowa’s hungry, it is unfortunate that Governor Branstad vetoed the $500,000 appropriation for the eight Iowa food banks that serve all 99 counties, to purchase and distribute nutritious foods. The appropriation, approved by both houses of the state legislature with bipartisan support, would have been used in accordance with the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines to provide food banks with fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy products. These foods are rarely received through donations and are difficult for emergency food providers to individually purchase in large enough quantities to be cost effective.
This legislation would have assisted low-resource Iowans in receiving foods that meet nutritional guidelines. It would have leveraged the capacity of emergency food systems in building food secure and healthier communities across Iowa. It would have had a positive economic impact on Iowa farmers who produce the food.
Government can’t be expected to solve all of society’s problems. Individuals, corporations and community organizations all have a role to play. Nonetheless, given the magnitude of hunger in Iowa, and the individual and societal costs of adults and children going hungry in this state, government has a role to play as well. Policymakers at the local, county and state levels can and must continue to advance policies to insure that all Iowa families are economically secure, and that all Iowans have enough nutritious food to eat. Economic security is the key to food security and food security is the cornerstone of healthy families.
Having healthy food accessible to all Iowans at all times assures that children are well nourished and ready to learn, adults are productive in the workplace, farmers have new market opportunities and communities have the capacity to thrive. We hope that the legislature and the governor will work together in the future to help end hunger in Iowa.