Feed the hungry

Eight food pantries serve Hamilton County

The old joke about college students living on ramen noodles isn't funny. For too many, it's now an everyday reality. The constantly rising costs of tuition, housing and living expenses, has resulted in a serious level of food insecurity on campuses. Today, all three of Iowa's regency universities operate food pantries exclusively for students. Here is the food pantry at Iowa State University in Ames.

“https://ogden_images.s3.amazonaws.com/www.freemanjournal.net/images/2024/02/15181209/Food-Pantry2WEB-288×500.jpg” alt=”” width=”288″ height=”500″ class=”alignnone size-medium wp-image-626388″ />Iowa takes pride in feeding the world, so it’s a shock to hear 11% of Hamilton County residents are “food insecure.”

In simple terms, this refers to anyone not able to buy ample food for themselves or a family, and not knowing where their next meal will come from. Fighting back against this persistent, and growing, problem are eight food pantries. They’re staffed with stalwart volunteers determined to help with this most basic of life’s needs.

This is their uplifting story.

UDMO: Pioneer food pantry of Hamilton County

For President Lyndon Johnson, poverty was personal. His father, a state legislator and businessman from a small town in the Texas hill country, lost everything in the Great Depression. As a result, Johnson grew up without enough to eat and living in fear the bank might repossess his family’s home at any time. In a small town where everyone knew everyone, it was a stigma difficult to overcome.

On his first night as president, only hours after the assassination of President John Kennedy, Johnson met with some of his closest advisors in Washington. One of them, Walter Heller, chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, mentioned that Kennedy was planning to start a program to help impoverished Americans. Officially the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the first, and perhaps premier legislation of Johnson’s Great Society agenda, quickly became known as the “war on poverty.” Six weeks later, in his first state-of-the-union address, Johnson asked Congress and the nation to join him in this work, famously saying “the richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Community Action Agencies were established across the country to take Great Society programs out to the states. In Iowa, 16 such agencies were created, among them Upper Des Moines Opportunity Inc. (UDMO) with responsibility for 12 counties, including Hamilton, in north central Iowa.

From the start, UDMO has focused on programs to help make people self-sufficient; in effect, partners in combating their own poverty. Examples of these programs include Head Start, Coats for Kids, financial assistance for seniors wishing to stay in their own homes, help in paying utility bills, home weatherization, even seeds and tools for home gardening as a means of combating hunger.

UDMO also opened the first organized food pantry in Webster City.

Jamie Flugstad, director of UDMO’s Webster City center, “everybody needs food, even people who never imagined coming to a food pantry. We see them every month. They’ve had their hours cut, they’re in-between jobs, their fixed incomes and food stamps won’t stretch far enough.”

Following its self-sufficiency model, and due to its limited opening hours, UDMO provides clients a three-day supply of food.The pantry has three freezers, a large refrigerator and plenty of storage for canned and packaged foods. In addition to regular shipments from the Food Bank of Iowa, Flugstad cites “exceptional local support” from Fareway, which donates surplus milk and butter, bakery goods from Hy-Vee, and, on Fridays, breakfast sandwiches from McDonalds. She also stocks high-demand household goods such as toilet paper, dish soap and, when she can get them, disposable diapers. All are in high demand.

“We want to be easy to work with,” Flugstad said. “Clients complete an income declaration form from the Department of Health & Human Services once a year. We never question their income; we trust them to be truthful.”

A single person making less than $26,973 a year or a family of four earning under $55,500 a year are eligible to receive food from the UDMO pantry.

Churches Play a Key Role

Churches in Hamilton County have long seen food assistance as part of their mission. Those working in church-sponsored food pantries include church secretaries or ministerial staff and volunteers. They’re truly on the front line of those fighting hunger in Hamilton County.

Jean Ripley manages the food pantry at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, 1000 Des Moines Street, Webster City. She remembers the day the pantry opened: June 21, 2016.

“We were working with UDMO. Our church became a food distribution site due to our central location and because our building is handicapped accessible. We were amazed at the demand. We ran out of food in 45 minutes. That was the moment our volunteers realized a great need we hadn’t seen, or experienced, before.”

When asked what can cause someone to visit a food pantry, Ripley cited five events that may cause a person, or family, to run short of food.

First, is the loss of a job. She said, “Today, most families need two incomes. If a job is lost, hours cut back or reduced to part time, it’s an instant family emergency.”

Other causes she mentioned are “divorce, a diagnosis of medical conditions requiring expensive treatment, especially for those with no insurance; reduced income resulting from retirement; and COVID-19. People getting sick and not going to work, going through their savings, and turning to food pantries.”

What kind of people in the county rely on food pantries?

Ripley saID they can be anyone. “We see young parents, elderly people, children. Many tell the same story — they were doing fine until a life event intervened. They need help and they need it now.” She’s alarmed at how many of her clients “have regular jobs, work full-time or more than one job, and still can’t afford enough food.

“It’s a terrible sign of our times,” she said.

Phyllis Bisbee came home to Webster City after living in Des Moines for 40 years. She’d volunteered in the warehouse of the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, and found it rewarding. So when she became a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 1005 Beach Street, Webster City, she immediately volunteered in its pantry.

Like that of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul’s is a “mobile pantry.” She said this means, “The pantry comes to us once every other month. We provide a site. We set up to distribute food in an orderly way and staff it with volunteers from our church family.”

At St. Paul’s, the pantry is held the third Tuesday in January, March, May, July, September and November.

St.Thomas Aquinas holds its distribution day every third Tuesday in the other months of the year: February, April, June, August, October and December.

In addition to its mobile pantry schedule, St. Paul’s is open every Tuesday, except the third Tuesday, from 4 to 6 p.m.

“Our clients need food more than our every-other-month schedule can provide, so we have the extra hours,” Bisbee said.

St. Paul’s stores nonperishable foods, collected as donations from parishioners and others in the community, in a closet. “It’s good-sized, but with two or three people in there, it’s crowded,” she said. She added, the church is always happy to receive donations, whether in the form of cash or food.

Bisbee prefers to set up the pantry herself a couple of hours before the truck arrives. It resembles a small grocery store. Then volunteers come in — there are currently six to eight — to help clients choose and sack orders. They also help carry the groceries to their cars.

“The clients are wonderful, so grateful for the help they’re getting,” Bisbee said.

This year, during its January pantry, St. Paul’s distributed food to 66 families.

“Families register with us once a year. They fill in a simple form. There are income guidelines — very low ones — but we’ve never turned anyone away who says they need food.” It should be noted that the Food Bank of Iowa requires the information for its records.

When asked what she wants readers to know about food insecurity in Hamilton County, Bisbee didn’t hesitate: “Homelessness isn’t limited to urban America. They’re right here in plain sight. There are people camping in Brigg’s Woods and living in their cars. When they come in, they can’t take fresh or perishable food because they have no refrigerator. They’re cooking over open fires.”

Veterans are a Special Case

When it comes to food insecurity, veterans of America’s armed forces are a special case. Nationally, 27% of veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are food insecure. Veterans of working age are at greatest risk; if they’re disabled, they’re more than three times as likely to need regular food assistance. But it can be difficult convincing a veteran to accept food assistance, and that’s where the Veterans Affairs, with staff who know and work with veterans every day, comes in.

Catie Peterson, county veteran services officer, Hamilton County Veteran Services Office, explains. “Asking for help with food is hard for everyone, but even harder for veterans. They’re self-reliant, proud and used to taking care of themselves. Even getting them to see they need help can be difficult.”

She added, “In this office we help veterans with many things after their active duty military life is over, so when the time is right we mention we run a food pantry just for veterans. If they know other vets are getting help with food, it can help them take that critical first step themselves. Sometimes all we have to do is show them our pantry, and say ‘take whatever you need.’ They’re very grateful for the food and we know many of them really need it.”

Hamilton County Veterans Affairs started its own in-house pantry in November 2022. “We’re not a full-service food pantry and don’t try to be,” Peterson said. The pantry stocks only nonperishable, prepacked foods supplied by the Food Bank of Iowa. It has a small freezer, allowing them to distribute meat when it’s in stock.

Veteran food assistance varies by county. Ten years ago, some counties discussed food needs individually with veterans, then gave them a voucher valid at local grocery stores. It could be spent like cash at the store of their choice. More recently, many Iowa county VA offices have started their own pantries for reasons already described. These pantries serve only those holding Department of Defense form DD214, the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. The pantry’s official name is Veteran Grocery Service. It’s open to veterans, spouses and their children.

With an estimated 1,100 veterans living in Hamilton County, Peterson said, “The demand for food goes up every year; there’s no end in sight.”

The Hamilton County Veteran Services recently moved into its new offices at 1610 Collins Street, Suite 2, Webster City. This is on the northeast corner of the former Webster City Medical Clinic, which also houses Hamilton County Public Health. In this new space, it has plenty of room for its veteran grocery.

A Robust Supply Chain

Think of food pantries as the “retail stores” where people “shop” and the Food Bank of Iowa as the “wholesaler,” the source of much of the food in local pantries. It’s one of six food banks in Iowa. It supplies all of Hamilton County’s food pantries.

Annette Hacker, spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Iowa, said it was established in Des Moines in 1982 and distributes food to 700 partner locations — food pantries — in 55 counties. “All food banks tend to operate the same way. We find free and reduced-cost food, keep it safe from contamination or spoilage, and move it to our frontline partners for distribution.”

The Food Bank of Iowa inspects all sites that apply to host a mobile pantry before that site can receive and distribute food. Its Mobile Pantry Operations Manual contains requirements for food pantry sites:

— An on-site coordinator is appointed to oversee the day of distribution to supervise volunteers, and be a primary contact with the Food Bank of Iowa. As an example, Ripley is an onsite coordinator for the St. Thomas Aquinas mobile food pantry.

— Ten to 15 volunteers should be on site to unload and distribute food. They must be able to readily lift and move 40 pounds of food.

— Six to eight tables, 8 feet in length, are recommended to display and dispense food;

— The distribution site should allow easy access for a 26-foot truck to unload into “a large, multi-purpose” room, and must be allowed to remain for a minimum of 10-15 minutes;

— Ample parking for volunteers and clients;

— Someone must distribute flyers locally to promote the mobile pantry;

— A sign-in table must be provided to record data required for the Food Bank of Iowa’s records. Those receiving food must provide name, household size, county and zip code of residence, and “self-declare their eligibility” to receive United States Department of Agriculture foods.

The manual also lists standards for the safe handling of food. On-site coordinators receive a guide listing these requirements and complete food safety training before the first mobile pantry delivery.

These include:

— Keep all food a minimum 4 to 6 inches off the floor;

— Provide disposable gloves to workers and volunteers;

— Keep cleaning and sanitizing chemicals separate from food;

— Don’t reuse wet, stained, dirty or broken boxes;

— Keep meat and poultry separate from other refrigerated food and produce;

— Collect and dispose of garbage on-site in suitable containers.

Where does the Food Bank of Iowa get its food?

Some come from the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. Beginning in the 1980s, the USDA bought up surplus unsold cheese from American dairy farmers as a way to keep cheese prices stable, even in the face of slackening demand by consumers. A substantial amount of cheese, a good source of protein, is still provided to the Food Bank of Iowa by the USDA, as well as more than 120 canned, frozen, fresh or dried eggs, meats, nuts, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, rice, cereal and pasta. It also provides funding to states to help them manage distribution of these foods locally.

“Rescue food” is another big source of food for the Food Bank of Iowa. Farms, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, restaurants, college dormitory dining rooms, hotels, caterers, and bakeries routinely donate food that just a few years ago was thrown out. Hacker gave an example in which Mondalez International, the New Jersey maker of Triscuits, mistakenly labeled a large production run of the popular crackers as organic. Triscuits, in fact, are not organic under USDA standards, so the product could not be sold in stores. The entire lot — thousands of cases — was donated to food banks across the country.

A major supplier of food to the Food Bank of Iowa is Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supplies the nation’s 200 food banks. Feeding America uses its buying power to negotiate for and buy foods of all kinds, then ships it to food banks like the Food Bank of Iowa. Its national distribution system keeps food flowing to food banks and pantries across the country.

By working through Feeding America, Hacker said, “We’re part of a large and growing food assistance network that can buy food for pennies on the dollar. It takes all of us, working together, to feed the growing number of hungry people in America.”

Why are so many Iowans hungry?

Why, in a state known the world over for leadership in agriculture and food production, is hunger a persistent — and growing — challenge?

Food Bank of Iowa Chief Executive Officer Michelle Book, said it’s linked to low wages, the increasing cost of living, and the poverty that results. “Two simple statistics tell the story: One in nine adult Iowans are food insecure; one in seven Iowa children don’t have enough to eat.”

The Food Bank of Iowa’s website explains: “Although we have an abundance of jobs in Iowa, we don’t have enough adequate, living wage jobs. Many Iowans lack the skills required for higher paying jobs. A shortage of affordable housing and access to quality child daycare, especially in rural Iowa, exacerbates the issue.

“People living on fixed incomes are hard-pressed to cover the cost of basic needs, especially in times of rapid inflation. The average annual disability payment in Iowa is $12,165; the average social security payment is $11,424; while an adult must make a minimum of $28,781 a year to cover the cost of living.”

Today, 40% of Iowa students receive USDA free or reduced-cost meals, more than at any time since the National School Lunch Program was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946.

For years, the program covered only lunches. Breakfast was added later, when it was discovered a huge percentage of school-age children were eating little, or nothing, before school. This was caused by a number of factors including poverty, working parents who weren’t present at breakfast time, or exceedingly long rides to school in school buses, or carpools, and a consequence of consolidating school districts. “So . . . mom was right all along; breakfast is important; students eating breakfast at school score 17.1% higher than those having no breakfast.”

Who pays for all this?

Who pays for all the food and distribution services provided by this vast system of food banks and pantries?

The answer, very simply, is donations. They are donations from companies, institutions and individuals, as well as grants that are both public and private.

According to the Food Bank of Iowa’s website: “48% of our food inventory is purchased with donor dollars.” These contributions are used to buy staples, including peanut butter, canned tuna, cereal, soup, canned and fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and boxed skillet meals. About 23% of all food is purchased in Iowa, a major boon to the local economy.

Large corporations account for most of the rest, including utilities, food manufacturers, financial service companies, restaurants, charitable foundations, internet-based service providers, and retailers. Some of the more recognizable names among the top donors include Amazon, Barilla Foods, Cargill, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, Fareway Stores, General Mills, Hershey Co., Hy-Vee, Hormel Foods, Morgan Stanley, Target, T-Mobile, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. There are many others.

At the end of the day . . . a desire to help others

Ripley, the on-site coordinator for the St. Thomas Aquinas mobile food bank figures she works about 30 hours for each of the six times her pantry distributes food each year to from 80 to 100 families.

“I like to post flyers early in each of the months we hold our mobile pantry so our clients can work the day and time we’re open into their schedule. I drive all over Webster City to put up posters where I think they’ll have the greatest impact — daycares, post office, Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, gas stations, KQWC, the Daily Freeman Journal, social services offices like UDMO, and Hamilton County Public Health, including the WIC (Women, Infants & Children), and Hamilton County Social Services offices. Then, I put up posters in post offices of all the outlying, smaller towns in Hamilton County.

“When I get the list of food being sent (by the Food Bank of Iowa), I match up one of our volunteers with a couple of items for them to hand out to clients as they come through the pantry. Our parish has been buying non-food items for clients to choose (one per person) from a special table in our pantry.

“The day of the food distribution, I’m off to Hy-Vee for bakery items nearing their best by dates, then back at the site by noon to start the set up. I have to be there for the arrival of the Food Bank of Iowa truck at one.

“We start checking-in clients at 2:30 p.m. and distribute food between 3:30-5:30 p.m. We close after that, but I try to do some clean-up before then by washing and putting away tables, breaking down the cardboard boxes the food comes in, and taking the wooden pallets outside.

“Any food left over is boxed up and given to another Food Bank of Iowa affiliate, like UDMO or St. Paul’s, etc. If we’re lucky, we’re done by 6 p.m. It takes time to have a good day for our clients. Without my volunteers, this wouldn’t be possible. We all walk away with a good feeling we’ve helped others.”


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