Bobby Chase’s income as a full-time cook at an Ames pizza restaurant forces him to choose between paying for groceries or rent for the month.
“There are places that don’t want to give hours or a pay that actually makes sure people can pay their bills or for food,” Chase said.
Local food pantries in Ames help him resolve this dilemma. One week out of every month, Chase visits multiple food banks in Ames to stock up on groceries. Even with the support, he still finds himself rationing his food and barely having enough to make it through the month.
Chase is one of many employed Iowans who are increasingly relying on food bank services to make up for rising costs as Iowa food pantries are seeing an increase in services.
Most food bank recipients are employed
Des Moines Area Religious Council’s Chief Executive Officer Matt Unger said policymakers who attempt to write off high food insecurity as a workforce issue are wrong. Over a third of recipients are outside of the workforce age. In May, 32% of the council’s food assistance aid went to children and 13% of recipients were 65 years or older. Meanwhile, only 16% of recipients in May were unemployed and Unger said some work multiple jobs.
“There is a lot of work to do beyond just looking at this and pigeonholing it as an issue of people being employed or not,” Unger said.
Every 10 minutes from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the Salvation Army of Ames serves families. Kathy Pinkerton, the service center coordinator, said appointments are filled up every day, sometimes a day in advance.
“Not only do their food assistance dollars not go as far but they have a lot less,” Pinkerton said. “It takes a while to incorporate that into your budget.”
Demand rose after COVID aid ended
When maximum federal food assistance benefits returned to normal rates after the COVID-19 emergency declaration ceased on April 1, food pantries in Iowa saw service numbers grow. In April, the Des Moines Area Religious Council saw over a 40% increase from the previous year and May ballooned into a 60% increase.
Unger said the pandemic temporarily decreased the need for food bank services because of the additional support such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, child tax credit and stimulus checks.
“So a lot of folks had more means than really they ever had before and they weren’t needing food assistance as much because they actually had the money that they could get their own food,” Unger said.
Unger said he is nervous about what will happen this fall, when the demand for service usually rises. The highest rate of service at Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) was over 22,000 recipients in November 2019.
This year, DMARC served over 15,400 people in May, compared to 9,500 in May 2021. This month, the food bank served over 14,300 people, compared to 10,700 in June 2021.
Melissa Jones works as an educational assistant at Fellows Elementary School in Ames. Summer means she is temporarily unemployed. For the last three years, she has gone to the Salvation Army of Ames. Food assistance has helped Jones feed herself and her three children, especially over the summer when her kids are out of school.
“The need is out there and it is great. It is just too many people fall within certain income brackets where they don’t get help from so many places because they don’t go below the certain threshold income level,” Jones said. “They still need the food because they have more expensive mortgages, car payments but they are still in need of help.”
Effects of the supply chain shortage
Families can visit the Salvation Army pantry once a month to pick up nonperishable items, but Pinkerton said she anticipates the need to increase the limit if the demand continues.
“We are getting a lot of calls from people saying ‘I really hope it has been 30 days’ and it hasn’t,” Pinkerton said. “My thought is if someone tells me they are hungry, they are.”
Before increasing shopping limits, pantries must have enough food to meet the demand. The Ames Salvation Army pantry saw a shortage of eggs due to the supply chain. The Salvation Army of Ames also supplies eggs to neighboring pantries experiencing a shortage.
Meat tends to be the product in highest demand. With over 14 pantries to serve and another 25 mobile programs, Unger said it is only getting harder to stock backfill based the increased demand alongside with price increases.
“There was one time we were able to get pounds of ground beef for the same price we would have paid for three five-ounce cans of chicken,” Unger said. “So to be able to actually get fresh ground beef for the same cost of 15 ounces of canned chicken was really unheard of before some of the stuff that has been going.”
The Food Bank of Siouxland is also ramping up stock in case of a recession but Executive Director Jake Wanderscheid said food prices have increased 25% since the summer of 2020. In previous years before the pandemic, Siouxland budgeted $552,000 on average for food. For fiscal year 2022, the food bank is budgeted to spend $724,000.
“Our dollar just doesn’t go as far, but really that is where we are going to want to be committed to is making sure we have enough food on the floor for our agencies and clients who need that food,” Wanderscheid said. “I think that will help by finding the funding sources to increase how much food we have on the floor now so that maybe the clients we are helping now won’t be as desperately impacted in the fall if there is a recession.”
Much of the food given to food pantries comes from individual, corporate and retail donations that have excess food. Wanderscheid said he is concerned about the availability of food across the market.
“Right now there isn’t a lot of excess in the system in our area, so that does make me nervous that we wouldn’t have enough food if we would see a huge spike in demand.”