Food pantry use is up in many Midwest communities, despite a reasonably strong economy and low unemployment rate. There can be several reasons for the increased need for free food.
“What we’re seeing statewide is that we have pretty low wages in Iowa,” says Natalie Veldhouse, a research associate with the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit. “We have people who are working full-time who might not be able to make ends meet and people who are piecing together multiple part-time jobs, sometimes without benefits.”
A trip to the food pantry can allow those people to keep up with other bills or loan payments by reducing what they’re spending on food.
In November, the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) provided food to a record number of people, more than 22,600. But that’s not because more people are hungry.
The Food Research and Action Center tracks food insecurity. This interactive map shows the rates of people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and most of the Midwest states have relatively low rates.
“While we’ve seen overall need decrease, what’s happening is more people are using food pantries and less people are using food assistance,” says Luke Elzinga, DMARC’s communications manager.
Elzinga says DMARC has also increased accessibility by adding mobile food pantries and extending hours, which means more of the people who can benefit from the additional food are able to receive it.
But that can strain the nonprofit groups that operate pantries. Elzinga says before the Great Recession, DMARC could provide 5 days’ worth of food per month to its clients. During the economic downturn, it lowered that to 3 days of food and has never inched that number higher, despite the general economic recovery.
“Right now we’re just trying to be able to bring in enough funds to keep up with some of these increases just to be able to continue to provide a 3 day supply,” Elizinga said, though he quickly added that no one seeking food will go without.
The Trump administration has proposed three changes to SNAP, which could reduce eligibility for food assistance or the amount of assistance received. One of the rules has been finalized while the other two are still pending. Veldhouse says some of the potential changes stem from an idea that many people who aren’t eligible still manage to get SNAP benefits.
“There’s this huge misunderstanding, or just this rhetoric, that it’s this huge problem. But people are working, people who can work do work, and in no way are you helping Iowans or Midwesterners get ahead if you’re taking food off of their table,” Veldhouse said.
She says many people fear the impacts of those rules changes and the shifting of feeding the hungry from the public to the private sector.
“Another issue that we see in diverting benefits from a public program to relying on nonprofits to provide food for Iowans, Midwesterners, is that in large cities there’s usually more robust nonprofit sector where there are large food pantries that are connected with food banks and are open multiple days a week,” Veldhouse said. “You can come in and get a bunch of food and they have a ton of services. If you’re talking about a more rural area, sometimes it’s a food pantry in a church basement that’s open once a month.”
Veldhouse adds that smaller communities may also have trouble raising enough money to keep a food pantry fully stocked.