Many newly jobless Iowans don’t know where to get help, says food bank CEO

Volunteers from the Iowa chapter of Young Professionals in Agriculture fill food packs for the Food Bank of Iowa. The packs are handed out at mobile distribution sites in a 55-county area. Photo special to the Business Record.

Thousands of Iowans forced into unemployment by the worldwide pandemic are turning to food pantries to help feed their families.

The increased demand has put unprecedented demand on agencies that supply food to needy Iowa.

Many of the newly in need “were precariously perched for a number of years,” said Michelle Book, CEO and president of Food Bank of Iowa. The novel coronavirus outbreak has “thrown them completely into food assistance and poverty.”

In 2019, the Food Bank of Iowa acquired and delivered more than 17 million pounds of food, a 30% increase from the previous year. The need now is even greater, Book said.

The food bank had been distributing about 1.5 million pounds of food each month to more than 650 pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, schools and other organizations. Now it’s distributing 3 million pounds of food a month, Book said. She said the need will continue to grow as more Iowans become unemployed or have their work hours reduced.

Book said the food bank had put a cap on the amount of food that pantries and other groups ordered. In late March, some groups were submitting food orders that were three to five times larger than what they normally requested. “One person submitted an order that was 20 times the size of what they normally ordered,” she said. “With our current distribution system, we had to put a cap on it.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds first began ordering businesses closed on March 17 to stem the spread of COVID-19, a disease that affects the respiratory system. Since then, 167,677 Iowans have filed initial unemployment claims, according to state data released this week. More than 40% of the newly jobless – 70,750 people – work in industries with low-paying jobs such as retail, lodging, food service and sectors of health care. 

“We’ve heard so many stories the past few weeks from people who never thought they’d have to navigate this kind of system – unemployment, food assistance, utilities,” Book said. “I’m hearing from a lot of people that just don’t know how to get help.”

At Friday’s news conference, Reynolds announced the creation of the Feeding Iowans Task Force that will be led by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg. The group will identify gaps in the distribution system, connect Iowans with resources and increase awareness of hunger related issues in the state.

Reynolds said that in March, food pantries in the state helped 65% more Iowans with applications for food assistance than during the same time a year ago. “Food donations are down and less food is being rescued from grocery stores to stock food pantries,” she said. 

Reynolds said the $2 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package signed into law March 29 will provide additional money for food banks. The package included $450 million for food banks and other community food distribution programs. Reynolds did not say how much of that aid Iowa would receive or when the money would be distributed.  

Book said that while the food bank has plenty of food on hand, it is working to increase its distribution routes. The food bank had previously ordered two new trucks to replace two that were aged. The older vehicles will continue to be used instead of being retired, she said. Once the new trucks arrive, the food bank will be able to distribute more food, she said.

Previously, people who received food from through the food bank were able to pick out what items they wanted. Now items are being boxed and delivered at drive-thru sites in order to minimize person-to-person contact.

The increased demand has also meant increased expenses. More frequent deliveries have meant an increase in vehicle maintenance and fuel costs. In addition, employees are working overtime to accommodate the extra deliveries. 

“In our 40-year history, we have never experienced anything like the economic disaster which has unfolded around COVID-19,” Book said. Still, she said, “I’m very confident that we are well positioned to meet the needs of Iowans through the rest of 2020 and into 2021.”

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Food Bank of Iowa staff member Taylor McCombs (left) and a volunteer distribute food packs at a drive-thru site. Photo special to the Business Record.