Forum takes aim at hunger

BY ALEX HANAFAN | JULY 02, 2014 5:00 AM

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State, county, and local officials gathered to discuss the issue of hunger in Johnson County, and officials say there is not just one answer to the complicated issue.

The first-ever Johnson County Hunger Forum was held at the Coralville Public Library as a part of the Crisis Center’s annual food drive, Thanksgiving in July. The community event started in July 1998, when Mercy Hospital sponsored a food drive to benefit the Crisis Center and other area food pantries.

According to a 2012 report from Feeding America, an estimated 18,640 Johnson County residents do not have access to enough food that promotes a healthy lifestyle. As a result, more area nonprofit organizations said they see a demanding increase for their services.

Some officials believe the answer to this growth is simple: funding.

“Everyone could be involved on an individual basis, such as donating from your garden or cleaning out your pantry every now and then, but we need those checks to survive,” said Becci Reedus, Johnson County Crisis Center executive director.

The Crisis Center Food Bank serves roughly 12,000 people annually.

Reedus said she believes there should be collaboration among the county, state, and city to tackle the issue. She suggested the possibility of smaller communities opening up new food pantries for reasonably priced rent.

North Liberty City Councilor Chris Hoffman said funding is easy to talk about but very difficult to achieve.

“I question how doable sharing funding is for a collaboration; maybe if we share information more effectively instead,” Hoffman said.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said putting a tax on food vendors could help subsidize more funding for local food pantries.

“Talking is great, but I like action,” he said. “We were able to move forward this year with the $250,000; it wouldn’t be a problem for you guys to talk about the funds for this upcoming year.”

Reedus said the community is not able to fix the hunger problem until other city issues are treated as well.

According to the Iowa City Policy Project, Johnson County has the highest cost of living in Iowa.

“The challenge the Crisis Center is keeping up with is its increasing need; it’s not just food we need to make accessible but a fund where we assist people getting jobs,” Rep. Sally Stutsman, D-Riverside, said.

Stutsman said she believes that too much emphasis has been placed on the concerns of only Coralville, Iowa City, and North Liberty, as well as worries about the smaller communities that are unaware of the resources available.

“There are other counties in Johnson County that we need to reach out to, and maybe we can use our expertise to get them involved, too,” she said.  

Iowa City City Councilor Kingsley Botchway said he wanted to get a direct suggestion to pass onto the council for immediate action. To ensure equal distribution of funds, he suggested sending emails or sitting down with smaller cities officials as well and discussing a dollar amount.

Botchway said that the county should start by including the people who are affected by these decisions when it comes time to a vote.

“We have had too many times where other people are making laws and the people affected weren’t given the opportunity to speak up,” he said.

Although this is the first time statewide officials gathered to speak on behalf of food insecurity, the panel unanimously agreed this wouldn’t be the last time.

“I do believe that we have the ability to create a better system to make sure every person who is hungry to get food,” Reedus said.

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