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Need for food aid on the rise

BY SHANE ERSLAND | NOVEMBER 17, 2009 7:21 AM

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A growing number of Johnson County residents are acquiring their meals through local food-support services.

The Crisis Center doled out nearly 40,000 bags of food to needy citizens in fiscal 2009, compared with around 33,000 in fiscal 2008, said Sarah Benson Witry, the Food Bank director at the center, 1121 Gilbert St.

In addition, the center has handed out around 765 bags per week during the second half of this year, up from roughly 600 bags per week during the end of 2008.

“We offer food to anyone who is deemed as having a food crisis,” she said. “They can get help right away.”

Iowa’s rate of “food insecurity” — meaning families were unable to put enough food on their tables — jumped from 10.9 percent of households during 2003-05 to 11.6 percent in 2006-08, according to a survey by the U.S. Agriculture Department released on Monday.

It’s a trend mirrored by a national increase in the number of people searching for affordable nourishment.

The number of American households considered “food insecure” rose 3.5 percent from 2007 to 2008, reaching 14.6 percent, the highest rate since the organization started doing the survey.

Benson Witry said employment issues are the main reason more people are using the center’s services.

“A lot of stories are that their hours have been cut,” she said. “They can’t get unemployment because they’re still working, but it’s not enough, and they end up coming back here for help.”

The food baskets consist of standard nonperishables — including carbohydrates, fruits, and soup, Benson Witry said. Toiletries, snacks, meat, and dairy items are also available upon request.

In addition to the Crisis Center’s aid, many families also turn to federal food stamps to purchase meals. The amount of benefits each household can receive increased in April with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Families saw between $24 and $144 extra per month after the legislation passed.

The Rev. Mel Schlachter of Trinity Episcopal Church, 320 E. College St., shared Benson Witry’s view that the current economic situation is a key factor for the higher demand for food.

“When people are losing jobs, or cutting back to part-time, I call that tight,” he said.

Schlachter, whose church sets out two food baskets for attendees to fill for the Crisis Center each Sunday, said much of the responsibility for helping people without enough to eat falls on the rest of the community.

“It’s incumbent upon those of us who are working and do have money to share what we have,” he said.

Despite already high numbers, Benson Witry said the Crisis Center is trying to reach even more Johnson County residents.

“We’re always exploring ways to increase accessibility to people who aren’t located on the South East Side where we are,” she said. “We have no delivery right now but are exploring that option.”


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