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Food pantries see an increase in need as holiday season begins

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Marco Verch
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The Food Bank of Iowa says it's serving about 150,000 individuals each month

Food pantries in Iowa are continuing to see an increase of people needing assistance. Officials say the demand for food assistance has been steadily increasing, especially as economic factors like inflation continue.

Food Bank of Iowa reports that since spring, when extra SNAP benefits ended, it’s seen an increase in the number of people being served.

“I think what we’re seeing today is unprecedented need,” said Michelle Book, CEO of Food Bank of Iowa. “In the 40 years that Food Bank of Iowa has been serving food insecure Iowans, these past few months have been record breakers for us. So May, June, July and August were all record breaking months, with September the most recent month available to us being just about the same.”

Including its partner organizations, Book said the food bank is serving about 150,000 people per month.

Book said, at the same time as extra SNAP benefits ending, higher gas and grocery prices hit, making budgets tighter for Iowans.

But those prices also affect food assistance organizations.

Zuli Garcia is the founding president of Knock and Drop Iowa. It’s the first-ever Latino food pantry in the Des Moines metro and provides culturally specific foods. She said higher prices have impacted her organization, and lately they’ve had to dip into reserves to make sure families have enough to take home.

“That's what our fear is, is that we're going to get to the point where unfortunately, we're going to have to start turning people why because things are getting expensive, not just out there for everyone, but even for the nonprofits. We can't find the food that's needed to be able to feed families,” she said.

Garcia said for just one day of the pantry being open, Knock and Drop spent $4,800 on food for 387 families.

“Every time the holidays come is when we go into the negative because we're dipping into funds that we haven't received yet, that we don't have,” Garcia said. “We're just we're trying to make sure that every single family has a great time."

Garcia said while most people are able to have paid holidays off during this time of year, many of the families Knock and Drop serves struggle with smaller paychecks when their workplaces close over the holidays, making budgets even tighter.

Matt Unger, the CEO of the Des Moines Area Religious Council, said while pandemic-era assistance financially helped for a time, it didn’t address the underlying problems with food insecurity.

“We have this growth now, and the number of folks that are needing this kind of assistance, and we don't have the same spotlight on the issue that we did during the pandemic,” he said. “So I think there's the risk that we've got some complacency…We still have a lot of problems to fix, to get at some of these root cause issues that are driving folks into food insecurity in the first place.”

So far this month, DMARC has assisted 14,000 individuals, Unger said.

Unger said looking at what we did well during the pandemic could help open up conversation.

“Ultimately, solving food insecurity is not going to be done by providing food to people,” he said. “We're going to have to get at those reasons that folks are being driven into food insecurity in the first place, and the easiest thing you can look at and point to is, people don't make enough money to pay for what it costs to live today. And we have to do something to fix that.”

Catherine Wheeler is Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter.