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A dispute between food assistance organizations threatens funding for much-needed help

Some grocery stores are using subtle cues to point out good food choices.
Marco Verch
A dispute between the Food Bank of Iowa, which supplies many of the state's food pantries, and the Des Moines Area Religious Council is causing city officials to rethink funding. That comes as food pantries across Iowa have seen historic growth in need in the last year.

There's been ongoing disagreements between the Food Bank of Iowa and the Des Moines Area Religious Council over policy changes that has led the city of Des Moines to consider withdrawing financial support. And it’s causing some pantries to struggle to keep food on the shelves. IPR's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Des Moines Register reporter Francesca Block about her reporting on the issue.

Catherine Wheeler: What's happened between these two groups?

Francesca Block: So in September of last year, the Food Bank of Iowa, which kind of acts as a wholesaler, for food pantries, implemented a new contract addendum requiring all partner pantries to supply a three day supply of food, which is about 12 pounds to every client that visits the pantry. What's important to note is that this addendum to applied to all pantries, regardless of “network affiliation.” So the Des Moines Area Religious Council, or DMARC, is a network of 14 pantries that operate in the metro area. And many of the DMARC pantry leaders said this new addendum might force them to have to supply that three day supply to one person who could then visit all the other pantries in the network, adding up to 42 days worth of food for one person before somebody else might get any. So DMARC posed this not only as a capacity issue, but also as one of equity, whereas the Food Bank said it's unfair to assume people would take advantage of the system in that way. So this disagreement led 10 of the 14 pantries in DMARC to end their contracts with Food Bank, though many say it wasn't by choice.

Then the city of Des Moines got involved. What happened with that situation?

In December, the city of Des Moines gave the two organizations an ultimatum: either work things out, or the city will withhold half a million dollars in funding. In response to that, the organizations’ CEOs signed an agreement on Dec. 22, promising to open lines of communication and support each other's work. Some of those promises included “immediate collaboration on the reinstatement of food rescue,” which many pantries said was critical to being able to provide for their clients.

But now, the city said they're not moving fast enough?

Yeah. So that agreement was signed at the end of December and a week or so into the new year, there didn't seem to be a whole lot of movement, especially on that promise of immediate collaboration on food rescue. So as a result, many Des Moines city officials, including council members and the mayor said they want to see more tangible progress before they award that funding.

How is all of this affected the food pantries that work with the Food Bank of Iowa have there been any larger effects?

So pantries right now are facing record demand for their services as rising prices continue to stretch people's pocketbooks. And they're saying that this dispute with the Food Bank of Iowa is just making it even harder to keep their shelves stocked. My colleague, Michaela Ramm, actually visited a pantry at the Salvation Army this week and they said they lost about 50% of their anytime food and 100% of household items they used to distribute to clients since the split.

So what happens from here? How long is the city willing to wait for the groups to settle? Is it looking like the groups will settle this at all?

So the Des Moines City Council is set to vote on this funding decision in February. It's important to note that in West Moines, the West Des Moines pantry did end up resigning their contract with the Food Bank of Iowa, including that contract addendum, and they're now working on restarting that partnership. As for what happens with the other DMARC pantries, many of them are still receiving a lot of support from DMARC. But they're dealing with rising prices, especially in key areas like eggs and milk. One of the pantry leaders I spoke to said they're just taking things month by month and they just hope a resolution with the Food Bank comes as soon as possible.

Francesca Block is a reporter for the Des Moines Register and has been reporting on the dispute between the Food Bank of Iowa and the Des Moines Area Religious Council with her colleague Michaela Ramm.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.