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Johnson County Crisis center sees spike in food assistance needs

BY BRIANNA JETT | SEPTEMBER 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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Johnson County is hungry.

The number of families and individuals seeking help at the Crisis Center of Johnson County rose to all-time high officials said, and the prospects for improvement are not promising.

“We were giving out significantly more food distributions than last year,” said Sarah Benson Witry, Food Bank and emergency-assistance director of the Crisis Center.

In fact, the number of clients seeking food assistance jumped 19 percent from 2011 to June 2012. That amounts to 6,575 more food distributions to those that need it.

Crisis Center officials say they believe this increase is due in part to their change to a more efficient distribution plan— but they also blame the economy.

“This recession has been going on a long time,” said economist Patrick Barron. “They’ve been unemployed for a long time. They are at the end of their rope.”

As food prices continue to rise and the unemployment rate remains high, the strain on low-income families becomes ever more apparent.

“The longer [the recession] goes on, the more people’s savings are being depleted— the more their resources are depleted— and they need financial help,” Barron said.

The number of families seeking help is not the only number to rise. The number of visits per household also increased from an average of seven to eight visits in the 2011 fiscal year to nine in the 2012 fiscal year.

“While the number of families in need is going up, the level of need in each family is also increasing,” Witry said.

Barron sees it only worsening.

“Even when the economy improves, people will still be seeking help,” he said. “It doesn’t improve for everyone at once.”

This trend echoes nationally. According to Feeding America, 49 million people struggle with hunger — 16 million of them children.

The need for food is not the only demand rising. Requests for emergency assistance with rent, heat, and electricity rose from 1,833 in fiscal 2011 to 2,604 in the fiscal 2012.  This is causing some aid organizations to worry as winter approaches.

“We got really lucky as far as our clients go, last year, because it was a mild winter,” Witry said.

But Crisis Center officials say what they can expect for sure is an increase in turkey prices for the turkeys they give to families every December.

“Anyone going to the grocery store can see that food prices have increased,” Witry said. “With prices going up, it’s harder for us to meet those clients’ needs.”

The center is not the only service having a harder time meeting its clients needs.

“We are strapped right now,” said Crissy Canganelli, the executive director of the Shelter House.

The Shelter House is seeing a decrease in charitable giving, which is causing worry.

“We do have a small reserve fund, but we know going forward we need to increase our revenue,” Canganelli said. “And part of our revenue is charitable giving.”

Because of the unemployment rate, the Shelter House is also struggling with helping its clients find jobs and get back on their feet, although they acknowledge Iowa City is better than many places.

“It’s a healthier job market here than in many other places,” she said.

The number of homeless seeking shelter has not risen, but facilities are at capacity almost every night, and often have to turn people away. There are around 68 to 78 people a night.

Both the Shelter House and the Crisis Center are worried about what will happen if the trend continues.

“If we continue to see a steady increase like this for several years, we will see a time when this facility is over capacity,” Witry said, referring to the Crisis Center.


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