Iowa struggles with hunger in down economy


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A sluggish economy and rising poverty rates are leaving more Iowans hungry.

Jordan Vernoy, the state director of the Iowa Food Bank Association, wants to buck the trend.

"[I'm] just hoping that people learn what hunger looks like in Iowa, and they can take action against it," said Vernoy, noting that food banks throughout the state have seen a 30 percent increase in the number of clients over the last year.

He spoke to Johnson County residents at the Congregational United Church of Christ, 30 N. Clinton St., on Sunday about current poverty and hunger rates at the local and statewide level.

The struggling economy lies at the heart of the growing food-bank clientele, Vernoy said.

And locals echoed a similar belief.

"I believe the primary reason that there has been an increase in hunger in Iowa and in the United States is the downturn in the economy, with people losing their jobs and not being able to find jobs that pay adequately," said Donna Hirst, the chairwoman of the church's Mission Board.

A 2011 study by Iowa State University found an average of 19 percent of Johnson County families below the poverty line between 2005 and 2009. Despite the poverty rates, Vernoy said, approximately 43 percent of Iowa families at or below the poverty level are not receiving help because their income is considered too high by government standards.

According to his presentation, child hunger rates have also increased, with nearly 21 percent of Iowa's children living in families that can't afford enough food for proper nutrition. Vernoy said this malnutrition can hinder other parts of their lives, such as education.

Locally, Johnson County Crisis Center officials said they've seen an increase in those seeking food and assistance.

Elizabeth Haas, the emergency-assistance coordinator at the center, previously told The Daily Iowan her division has seen a 75 percent increase in families seeking help over the past two years.

Audience members and program directors said these numbers reflect the need for more education on local poverty trends.

"Tough hunger persists as a daunting social challenge," Ryan Downing, a Mission Board member at the Congregational Church, wrote in an email. "Regular people, nongovernmental organizations, and many governments are working hard to find ways to feed the hungry and allow the hungry to feed themselves."

He said fighting poverty-based hunger can extend outside the local level as well.

"Whether it be internationally broad-based United Nations initiatives, people coming together on the local level to give direct assistance, or grass-roots campaigns to address inequality and climate change, hope can be found in both the boldest campaigns and the most humble acts of kindness."

Even with the attempts to raise awareness of the community about hunger and poverty, some locals said most people are not fully aware of the circumstances.

"I think people would be appalled if they knew how many people were food insecure," said Marilyn Vander Weide, an audience member at Vernoy's presentation.

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