What is Causing Food Insecurity in Iowa?

food insecurity

The term “food insecurity” was first used in 1950 by the USDA to describe households in which one or more people were hungry at times because they could not afford enough food. In 1995, the USDA began measuring food insecurity with a new question on the U.S. Census form. In 2022, the food insecurity rate in the U.S. was 12.8%, or 44.2 million Americans. This is up from 10.2% in 2021 and 10.5% in 2020.

"What we're seeing in this report and what we've seen for the last four or five years is that consistently, about one-third of the people that are utilizing a food pantry are children.”

In Iowa, Feeding America reports 238,290 people are facing hunger and of them, 68,990 are children.

Record numbers seen at Iowa food pantries
Serving central Iowa for 71 years, the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network, started in 1974, is seeing a record number of visitors. The DMARC Portrait of a Food Pantry Visitor: Data, Demographics and Disparities report shows from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, almost 1 in 3 individuals utilizing the food pantry network was a first-time visitor.

In August of 2023, the DMARC Food Pantry Network assisted 23,886 different individuals during the busiest month on record. September 5, 2023, became the busiest day on record, assisting 1,991 individuals — and use is not slowing down.

“What we're seeing in this report and what we've seen for the last four or five years is that consistently, about one-third of the people that are utilizing a food pantry are children,” says Blake Willadsen, DMARC marketing and communications manager.  “A lot of the people who are coming frequently are not able to work. It’s not something they're relying on because they're trying to abuse the system or they're being lazy.”

While the average food pantry visitor used a food pantry 3.9 times a year, seniors visited food pantries 5.1 times a year on average, and people who identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander visited food pantries 5.4 times a year on average. Asian seniors visited an average of 6.6 times a year.

“That just speaks to the fact that a lot of these folks are living on a fixed income, whether it's Social Security or otherwise. With limited resources, you're always going to lean into the options that you have, like our food pantries,” says Willadsen. Serving an older population also means overcoming transportation barriers. DMARC offers food delivery in the Des Moines metro to accommodate seniors who are unable to drive to a food pantry or access public transportation.

Why do some Iowans choose to not apply for SNAP benefits, even though they are eligible?
In Polk County, the DMARC data show the “typical” visitor to a food pantry is a white/non-Hispanic woman who has graduated high school, has one child, is living below the poverty line but not receiving SNAP benefits, has unstable employment, and visits a food pantry once per year.

Unstable employment has been linked to underutilization of SNAP benefits. According to a study last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, about 1 in 5 families do not sign up for SNAP, despite being eligible. The study concluded many low-income families don’t get SNAP benefits because of unpredictable paychecks. Those with more volatile incomes were less likely to sign up for the SNAP program because it was harder to prove eligibility with paychecks that varied from week to week — this was especially true during the pandemic.

Jen Groves, EveryStep vice president of community health services says inflation is another reason some food pantry visitors are not receiving SNAP benefits. “With inflation, many households will be over the income level, but still aren’t able to meet their essential needs.”

Additionally, Willadsen says 1 in 10 people assisted by the DMARC Food Pantry Network are between 160% and 230% of the federal poverty level. He says they may not qualify for SNAP because they make too much, but are still below what most consider a livable wage or income.

What is causing food insecurity?
According to DMARC, the biggest contributing factor for the increase in new individuals seeking assistance was the record level of inflation experienced across almost every industry in 2022. The rising cost of nearly everything often means choosing between rent and food for those struggling in our communities.

“Everybody knows what it's like going to the gas station or the grocery store in the past year, and seeing how it has become so extremely difficult to keep up with just your regular budget for a lot of folks,” says Willadsen. “Many of them have been pushed to look for other options to help supplement areas like food. That's part of the reason why I think we've been seeing so many folks in the last year here. And among that group too, we tend to see a little bit more diverse food pantry population. It's just a really tough time for folks right now.”

This Thanksgiving, consider helping EveryStep reach out to those in need
As Americans prepare for Thanksgiving, the American Farm Bureau Federation Record estimates holiday food prices are about 4.5% lower than last year, though still about 25% higher than 2019. Thanksgiving dinner for 10 is estimated to cost $61.17.

While welcome news to most families, the cost of a “proper” Thanksgiving meal is too much for Iowans choosing between housing or food. And that number is growing.

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Life’s difficult moments are often turning points in the trajectory of our lives. Many people are especially struggling to meet their needs as the cost of living rises. EveryStep shows up when people need us most, no matter who they are or what circumstances they face, pulling the threads of health and social service systems tight so no one is left to struggle on their own. By offering connections, tools and resources, EveryStep helps people take control of their future. Please consider a donation to make sure no one falls through the gaps in our community fabric. With your help, no one must face adversity alone.