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County center: more locals seek food, financial help

BY ASMAA ELKEURTI | OCTOBER 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Meat at the Food Bank is a rarity, so when volunteer Barb Peterson stocked a package of pork chops, she hoped they could go to a family particularly in need. A man accompanied by his seven children came through, and as soon as he spotted the package, his face lit up.

"The joy on his face was extraordinary," Peterson said.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported the U.S. poverty rate was 15.1 percent in 2010, an increase from 14.3 percent in 2009, and that is reflected in Iowa City.

Johnson County Crisis Center officials say some of the center's divisions have seen increases in the number of people asking for assistance with receiving food, paying bills, as well as finding shelter.

Brooke Anstoetter, the Crisis Center's communications and development coordinator, said the Food Bank has seen an increase in people seeking help. According to last month's Crisis Center Impact, 3,335 food bags were distributed to 4,231 individuals — an all-time high — up from 3,402 individuals September 2010.

The Food Bank offers food for anyone in the community, regardless of need.

"We're not going to look at somebody and say, 'You don't look hungry.' All we require is a name," Anstoetter said.

Food Bank officials said workers try to keep shelves well stocked with a variety of goods. Cereals, breads, canned — and occasionally fresh — produce, as well as other essentials line the shelves. Household items such as toilet paper, detergent, and baby supplies are also available.

Anstoetter said a vast majority of the food and supplies are donated by local groups and businesses such as Hy-Vee, Table to Table, and Panera Bread.

The Emergency Assistance division has seen a 75 percent increase in the number of families coming for help in the last two years. On average, 55 to 65 families come in every week for assistance with paying bills, said Elizabeth Haas, the Emergency Assistance coordinator. But the center can only support 17 families per week.

And turning individuals away is often difficult, Haas said.

"I try not to think about it too much, or I would get really depressed. I can't do my job if I think about it too much," she said. "I don't even watch TV, and I don't pay attention to politics, because it makes me angry. I try to do my work and focus on the people we are able to help."

Iowa City Shelter House has also seen an increase in those seeking housing.

Even after the organization moved from a house that accommodated 29 beds to a larger 70-bed facility, workers have still had to turn people away, which may signify an increase in the number of people looking for shelter, said Shelter House Executive Director Crissy Canganelli.

Meeting the increasing needs of locals remains emotionally trying, Peterson said.

"The newer system is more stressful. You experience their emotions. We're not asking anybody to hide that," she said, referring to the new procedure of allowing individuals to pick out food rather than giving it out in pre-packaged bundles. "The three-hour shift is emotionally harder with the system, but it's such a joy to have somebody find a good match."


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