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KWWL SPECIAL REPORT: ‘Hidden Hunger’

Eastern Iowa (KWWL) – It’s the harsh reality for about 342,000 people in the state. They open an empty pantry, struggle to put food on the table or go to bed hungry.

In Iowa, recent data from Feeding America shows nearly 11% of people are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where they’re getting their next meal. 

Barb Prather is the Executive Director at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. She said hunger is hard to understand from the outside looking in.

“There’s a misconception that the only people that access our services are lazy and are not working. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

It’s hard to talk about hunger. Prather explained you can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

“You might have somebody at work that seems a little tired, seems a little sluggish, well, maybe it goes back to food insecurity,” she said. “You see a child come to school on Monday or Tuesday morning, and they’re a little sluggish and they’re a little tired, well, maybe it’s because they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before.”

Prather said there are two types of poverty: generational and situational. Her staff has found a majority of their clients are experiencing situational poverty.

“It means for example, they have a medical bill and all of the sudden, they can’t work. Or, somebody’s lost their job. Or, their hours have been cut back at work. Or, it’s a grandparent now taking care of a grandchild,” Prather said.

When people struggle to make ends meet, they often apply for government assistance, such as food stamps (SNAP benefits). But if they don’t qualify, Prather said many turn to food banks and food pantries.

In 1981, in the midst of the Farm Crisis, people in the community started the Cedar Valley Food Bank, serving about 1,200 households in their first eight months.

Nearly four decades later, the Food Bank has now evolved into the Northeast Iowa Food Bank (NEIFB), which helps feed 16 counties in northeast Iowa.

In eastern Iowa, there are three food banks. They serve hundreds of local agencies, which then serve people in the community.

“We’re the hubs,” Prather said. “The spokes are all the community pantries that are served throughout.”

The NEIFB relies on community donations. They often rescue product from going to the landfills, such as pallets of untouched food or fresh produce from local companies and grocery stores.

The problem is, they never know when the donations are coming, and they have to be ready to handle the products and distribute them at any time.

“We do a lot of food rescue: picking up at Kwik Star, picking up at HyVee, picking up at Target, picking up at grocery stores, that then goes back out to our member agencies,” Prather explained.

Last year, the Food Bank handled nearly 7 million meals. Their job is to close the meal gap, which is the number of meals government nutrition programs can’t provide.

Over the past few years, the meal gap has gotten smaller in Black Hawk County. There are fewer people who are food insecure. But one or two things could change that.

“We still have to be able to find food resources if a product source goes away,” Prather said. “That’s the tricky part. As manufacturers and distributors become more efficient, and even retailers become more efficient, our food donations are going to go away, but yet the need still exists.”

Vicki Abels has always lived in Waterloo. She has two sons who live in the area, a couple of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

After working for her entire life, Abels retired three years ago at age 70.

“Once I retired, I thought my income would be pretty decent,” she explained. “You know, not a lot, but I decided I could do without a lot of things and be a little happier not working.”

Without a steady paycheck, though, she found she was struggling to make ends meet.

“Food is a lot,” she said. “Then you have prescriptions, gas, and maybe if you want to do something, you don’t have a lot of extra money once you pay housing and utilities.”

Abels grew up in a generation that taught her to take care of herself. She decided to go to the Cedar Valley Food Pantry, which is housed at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. But it wasn’t an easy choice.

“It’s kinda hard sometimes to swallow that pride that you do need the help, and I don’t tell a lot of people sometimes, but I’m like, ‘You know what, it’s okay,'” she said.

It’s been about one year since Abels started going to the pantry. She hopes by sharing her story, others won’t be afraid to ask for help.

“[The Cedar Valley Food Pantry] is a very easy place to come to,” she said. “They make no judgements.”

In 2018, the University of Northern Iowa created a task force to study food insecurity among their student body.

After finding 16% of their students were hungry, they created the Panther Pantry, which is in the basement of Mauker Union.

“College is a really difficult time in students’ lives,” Panther Pantry graduate assistant Morgan Petersen said.

The pantry has a partnership with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, meaning volunteers go there once a week to pick up food to bring back to campus.

Students can go to the pantry as often as they’d like, no questions asked. It’s stocked with a variety of food and household products.

“It’s really important for [students] to take the full advantage of the college experience,” Petersen said. “You know, be attentive in class and make sure they’re getting out there and creating those social relationships, and that’s nearly impossible to do if you’re on an empty stomach.”

Since opening in January of this year, the pantry has seen 1,100 student visits and distributed more than 11,000 pounds of food and necessities.

Unfortunately, Petersen said many times, people forget about college students when it comes to the hunger issue. The University said they hope other schools consider creating a similar service for their students.

“This isn’t just a UNI problem,” she said. “This is an ongoing problem across all colleges and universities across the nation. We really want to be an example and a trendsetter in that way.”

Health experts worry when you’re food insecure, you’re missing out on important nutrients.

“We know that fresh fruits and vegetables are really an essential building block of a healthy, active lifestyle. It also seems to be that access to those fruits and vegetables are kind of on the chopping block – it’s one of the first things on the chopping block – when people are food insecure,” Jake Kundert said.

Kundert is the Food Systems Director at Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D). He’s also the program director for Grow Johnson County.

Grow Johnson County is a farm-based hunger relief and education initiative of Iowa Valley RC&D. The nonprofit grows 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables on 3.5 acres of the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm. It is then distributed to 13 hunger relief agencies inside the county.

Since the program started in 2016, they’ve grown more than 50,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables.

Kundert said there are a lot of supportive gardeners and farmers who donate produce. But Grow Johnson County is making sure their donations to hunger relief agencies are consistent.

Volunteers harvest the produce in the morning, and they distribute it by noon.

“It’s not easy work to do this, and I think the reason we do it is, that we find that we get consistent feedback from the agencies that people value the food that comes off this farm, and it’s making a difference in their lives,” Kundert said.

While Grow Johnson County focuses specifically on their residents, Kundert said the food insecurity problem exists all over the state. But, luckily, there is a solution, and it starts with using Iowa’s fertile soil.

“We can grow incredible amounts of food here,” Kundert explained. “There are lots of tracts of land that can be used to grow fresh fruits and vegetables.”

While the most recent data from Feeding America shows Iowa’s hunger problem is slightly improving, Barb Prather said there is still a lot of work to do.

“Too many people, in reality, don’t know where their food is coming from or don’t know where that next nutritious meal is,” she said. “It’s so important that people understand [hunger] is an issue. You don’t see it, but the reality is, the symptoms are there.”

Prather encourages you to volunteer your time, donate money or food, and write to your local legislators.

“If we can continue to help raise awareness that hunger is a problem and have the community behind us in doing that, we can all ensure then, that people in Northeast Iowa have access to an adequate supply of food,” she said.

Total number of food insecure people: 376,240

Food insecurity rate: 12.0%

Total number of food insecure people: 360,540

Food insecurity rate: 11.5%

Total number of food insecure people: 341,890

Food insecurity rate: 10.9%

Olivia Schmitt

Weekend Anchor

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