In 2021, Kelli Greenland and her two children used food pantries more often than they ever have. As the year closes, the Des Moines mom is filled with uncertainty.
Greenland said she visits one or two food pantries weekly to keep her children, Ethan, 8, and Skylynn, almost 6, fed. There seems to be less meat available these days, Greenland said. She sometimes has trouble finding dairy-free options for Skylynn, who is lactose intolerant.
But most of her anxiety is over the possible end of the expanded federal child tax credit in January.
“That program has been amazing,” Greenland said. “If it wasn’t for that program, I wouldn’t have gas to get to work, I wouldn’t have even the slightest amount of Christmas presents. … I was able to get the kids each a couple things, only because of that program. Between rent, electric, gas, you know, everyday life, bills, meds, all that – if it wasn’t for that program, I wouldn’t survive each month.”
Just like their guests, leaders of Iowa organizations that give food to people in need have their minds on this and other benefits that were created or augmented during the pandemic. Programs that put money and additional food benefits in people’s pockets, and made an unprecedented dent in American poverty, are either ending or could end soon.
And that could mean a new explosion of food insecurity, leaders said.
Matt Unger is chief executive officer of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, or DMARC, which operates 14 food pantries and 30 mobile sites.
“It’s scary to think that the worst is still in front of us for what we do,” he said.
For pantries, that prospect adds to uncertainty they have experienced because of staggering increases in freight and food costs this year, not to mention supply-chain disruptions that made it harder to keep their shelves stocked. Now the omicron coronavirus variant is the latest challenge.
Pantry operators and other Iowans, including Greenland, spoke to IowaWatch about food insecurity issues a year ago, just as vaccinations began. Greenland said this month that her family has been through significant changes since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and that food pantries kept her afloat. Greenland works in customer service, and she held off on accepting a new job in March 2020 because she didn’t want Ethan, who has severe asthma, to contract the novel coronavirus.
Greenland’s brother died on Jan. 27, 2021. A few days later, she left her husband. Greenland and her children now share a home with her parents and grandparents on the south side of Des Moines.
Most states have it worse than Iowa. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys, Iowa in 2020 had the nation’s second-lowest proportion of households that were food-insecure, 6.9%. Mississippi had the highest rate, over 15%.
But 6.9% is still over 90,000 Iowa households, and the state’s food pantries have stayed busy serving them. Advocates said they’re witnessing the poor getting poorer in 2021, and struggling even more as the pandemic lingers.
Jan Kosowski, director of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Cedar Rapids, said she has seen an increase in homeless people using the pantry in the past year. Visitors sometimes ask to wash up, along with requesting food.
“We just have a lot of people who are struggling harder than what we’ve seen before,” Kosowski said.
CHALLENGES: INCREASING PRICES
Tami Nielsen is vice president of partners and programs with Food Bank of Iowa, which has six networks in the state.
Pantries were busy battling hunger before the pandemic. Since it started, many have had more work and lots of new clients. “It’s not letting up,” Nielsen said.
Pantries buy in bulk, so price jumps that might not faze a typical family shopper add up quickly.
“Canned green beans, which are one of our most- needed items, pre-COVID, they were 41 cents per can, and now they’re about 78 cents per can,” Nielsen said.
Add to that the cost of freight, which can run 50% above what it was a couple of years ago.
The Food Bank of Iowa network, from January through November of 2021, had served the equivalent of over 38 million meals. When comparing only the parts of the network for which leaders have data for 2019 through 2021, the meal count for this year’s first 11 months is down from 2020’s heights but is still higher than in 2019.
CHALLENGES: FEDERAL BENEFITS ENDING
Two big federal programs have made it easier for families with lower incomes to shop for their own food and other needs: an expanded child tax credit that in the second half of 2021 provided direct payments of up to $300 per child, and a higher cap for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits that can be used to buy food.
The tax credit is all but dead. The last payments went out this month; congressional Democrats had hoped to extend it through the Build Back Better Act, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement Dec. 19 that he won’t support the measure as written means it almost certainly cannot become law.
It’s not known how long the higher SNAP benefits will last – they will expire a month after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency declaration related to the coronavirus expires. Reynolds has been renewing the declaration once a month.
Unger, the DMARC CEO, said the child tax credit money has allowed families to “take care of their own needs.” With SNAP, he said, one patron used to get $16 a month for SNAP but is now getting $200. Eventually that will drop back to about $20.
Nielsen, with Food Bank of Iowa, said the average family will lose about $95 per month.
CHALLENGES: FOOD INSECURITY WILL PERSIST
Unger said that, amid its horrors, the pandemic has focused some attention on hunger.
“We’ve been able to have a magnifying glass put on some of these social issues that we weren’t doing enough to try to fix previously,” he said. “So I’m encouraged by the amount of people paying attention and looking at food insecurity.”
Over 7,500 people who came to DMARC pantries in 2021 had not visited previously, Unger said.
“We’ve worked really hard to make sure folks understand that food insecurity was not created by the pandemic,” he said.
Monika Owczarski operates a farm business in Des Moines’ River Bend neighborhood and is a leader in an effort to make food easily available to neighbors that began around the same time as the pandemic. She agreed that things aren’t getting better.
“We’re being told that we’re back to normal and everything’s OK,” Owczarski said. “I think people are going to be in an even more dire situation.”
The community refrigerator she helps operate differs in many ways from conventional food pantries, mainly in having almost no restrictions on who can get food there.
She said neighbors started making meals for people to pick up when Iowa was first shut down in March 2020, because resources were not ramped up immediately to ensure that families retained access to food they’d normally get from pantries or at school.
The refrigerator/pantry where anybody can pick up staples came next. It’s been a challenge to keep it stocked, she said.
CHALLENGES: UNKNOWNS WITH OMICRON VARIANT
On top of all this comes the omicron variant, which some experts have predicted will bring worse pressure on the health care system than any previous part of the pandemic.
Unger said Dec. 20 that DMARC officials were discussing whether some of 2020’s safety measures might need to be reinstated. That could include packaging more things up ahead of time so that patrons take a package and leave instead of coming inside to shop, though Unger said he doesn’t want it to come to that. The number of volunteers coming in has been dropping, he said, attributing that at least partly to the variant.
Even if governments no longer have an appetite to demand that gathering places close or enforce social distancing or compensate them for taking those steps, illness-related disruptions could easily prompt more Iowans to seek out pantries to keep food on the table.
Nielsen, of Food Bank of Iowa, said the most important things Iowans can do to make sure pantries hold up is to give money. That “allows us to purchase food that’s greatly needed, like produce, protein, dairy,” she said. “We can really stretch the donor dollar more than if you go to the grocery store and buy particular items, although we do love that you can give food, if that’s your preference.”
Food Bank of Iowa, like many of its peers, also welcomes volunteers.
CHALLENGES: GREATER DEPTH OF POVERTY
Douglas Pepe, 34, of Ames estimated he has just $50 in his monthly budget for groceries.
Pepe is recovering from a methamphetamine addiction. He has borderline personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder. His challenges are substantial. But he’s got a list of goals, including eating as healthy as possible, giving up cigarettes and limiting sugar.
Pepe eats at least twice a week at Food At First in Ames, which offers free meals on-site and also has a perishable food pantry. Pepe said he especially enjoys the deli sandwiches donated from Iowa State University. He said he credits Food At First and Primary Health Care in Ames for helping him recover from his addiction.
“They hold these spaces for me,” Pepe said.
And what can Iowans do to help?
Pepe said they can “advocate for marginalized and excluded residents.” They can also donate to food pantries, he said.
“Iowa nice is nice. But how about some Iowa love?” he said.
Nicole Grundmeier is a freelance reporter and writer for IowaWatch. She has previously worked as a reporter and copy editor for The Des Moines Register. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
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