Turbulent time for Iowa food banks


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A federal program that gave Iowa’s eight food banks more than 10 million pounds of food in 2010 has been subject to cuts and uncertainty, private donations have been down, and the number of hungry families lining up at the more than 300 local food pantries has increased.

But a recent bill signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad, which will allocate $1 million in funds specifically for food banks, means the entities will now have a new revenue stream to tap.

Despite concerns, one local food-pantry official says the Iowa City community rises to the challenge.

Beth Ritter Ruback, the communications and development director at the Johnson County Crisis Center, said that although the number of visits to the food pantry have increased in 2013, the community is historically responsive and will answer the organization’s call for more supplies as needed.

“We love to get fresh produce especially the bumper crop from people’s home gardens, whether it’s a few tomatoes or a whole basket,” she said.

To date in 2013, Ritter Ruback said, the center has seen a 12 percent increase in visits to its food pantry.

Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney said that although food banks are a true value to the community, recent budget constraints have caused county officials to take a second look at where funds are directed.

“We do all we can to help provide for our neighbors and our families,” he said. “We have to take a second look at everything … we will probably have to look at that in the future.”

To date, Johnson County sets aside $75,220 to aid the Crisis Center.

Each month, the center donates roughly 80,000 pounds of food for the approximately 3,500 individual visits, Ritter Ruback said, and approximately 15 percent of that supply comes from the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program.

HACAP, a Hiawatha-based food bank, distributes about 2.5 million pounds of food each year to seven counties, including Johnson County, said Amanda Pieper, the director of the agency’s food reservoir.

HACAP gets about a third of its stock from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, said Cory Berkenes, the executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association.

Iowa received slightly more than 10.7 million pounds of food from the program in 2010, Berkenes said. In 2011, that figure dropped to approximately 8.5 million.

The levels are set by the farm bill, which Congress hasn’t been able to pass this year.

But Ritter Ruback said the same is not true for the people of Johnson County, who increase their support to meet growing demand.

In pounds, the Crisis Center gets about the same amount of food from HACAP as it has in years prior, Ritter Ruback said, but there is less variety.

HACAP’s dwindling supply has forced the Crisis Center to spend more precious funds on fruit and protein than it used to, she said.

Pieper said a number of factors, including recent job cuts over the course of the past few years, have driven up the demand at food pantries.

“We don’t know what the farm bill is going to bring … but in the past, [federal funding has] increasingly been decreasing,” she said, noting that donations, both of food and money, have also been down.

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