DES MOINES (DTN) -- When a group organized for Iowa farmers, agribusinesses and extension staff started a farm tour earlier this week, the first stop was the largest food pantry service in central Iowa.
The Iowa Smart Agriculture tour looked at how communities cope with rising demand for food assistance.
"It provides a different perspective on how people in agriculture look at food production and challenges," said Ernie Shea, president of Solutions From the Land, a non-profit that organizes farmer-led organizations around climate goals.
The Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) -- a coalition of 200 faith groups -- operates 15 food pantries as well as a headquarters warehouse and mobile units across the city. Since the pandemic, DMARC also has operated a home delivery program that continues to grow as people are homebound or face other transportation barriers.
Matt Unger, CEO of DMARC, was happy to show off DMARC's headquarters and warehouse, which the food pantry took over in March 2022; but Unger is concerned about the increase in new people seeking food assistance. In May, the pantry network served 20,822 separate individuals, breaking a record set for the pantry in May 2019 by 2,432 people.
DMARC assisted 43,576 individuals with food in 2022. Unger said the number of people this year will be closer to 56,000 or 57,000 individuals. Basically, one in five people in Des Moines will be served by a DMARC food pantry this year.
"Last year, one in four people who came to our network had never come to a pantry before," said Unger. "That number is closer to 30% this year. That's a statistic that's really alarming to me."
Des Moines is seeing a trend that is growing across the country as food banks and pantries are seeing spikes in demand for aid right now even as the country's unemployment rate remains at 3.7%, low by historical standards.
During the pandemic, DMARC actually had less demand because federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients saw their benefits moved to top support levels. Fewer people needed to supplement their needs. Then a snapback in demand hit. Essentially, federal support that was increased during the pandemic for SNAP came to an abrupt end. People saw SNAP benefits fall from $200 a month to $23 a month. That has led to a surge of food need. "We immediately saw a 42% increase in volume," Unger said.
DMARC then started seeing 2,000 new visitors for its services each month.
Now, the federal debt-ceiling legislation will tighten SNAP aid for working-age adults up to age 55. Iowa also passed its own state law signed by the governor on June 1 that will add new barriers to people accessing SNAP in the state.
Describing DMARC's program, Unger said the pantry operates with three pillars that begin with providing people an experience that's as close to grocery shopping as possible.
"We don't think someone needing food should change the way they're treated. It's a basic need. Everyone should be able to get their basic needs met, period."
A second pillar is to focus on offering healthier foods. DMARC places a premium on fresh produce and lean proteins. People who receive food from pantries historically have been three times more likely to be diabetic than the general population.
"If you think about the way growing up, we all had ingrained in our heads food drives for non-perishable items -- canned goods -- and a lot of those products have really high sodium and a lot of the fruit is canned in syrup. So, there are a lot of problems we were indirectly helping create with these folks who may not have great access to health care, and we don't need to complicate their situations any more than they already are."
The goal of providing fresh produce was aided by a set of coolers and freezers at the new headquarters that expanded DMARC's cold-storage capacity tenfold last year. That allows DMARC to spend more dollars on those products.
Still, meat and dairy products remain the hardest products for DMARC to buy and stock because of their cooler needs and short shelf lives.
Farmers on the tour asked about DMARC working with farmers to buy local produce. Unger said there are a few relationships developing, but DMARC has high demand, going through about 14,000 pounds of produce every month right now.
Customers at DMARC can come in once a month and get a larger box of staples based on the size of their household and the customers choose their products. That takes up the bulk of food that DMARC buys.
Other products that come from food drives or donations from retailers or other businesses are available daily for people to come in and shop. Those items don't have a cost for DMARC, so they are offered more freely.
"If someone wanted to, they could come in every day and get some of those times. So, trying to mirror that normal grocery shopping experience, you get your big visit then you come in and get things as you need them to make meals," Unger said.
A third pillar is commitment to data. The pantries ask first-time customers to fill out a survey about their home and family situation, education level, employment, income and whether they participate in SNAP.
"We know we're not going to solve hunger by providing food to people. We're going to solve hunger by changing the circumstances that drove them to needing food in the first place," Unger said.
From the data, just over one-third of people assisted by DMARC are children up to age 17. "That often surprises people," Unger said. Seniors make up nearly 10% of those served by the pantry.
Working adults make up 38% of the customer base while just under 20% of those who receive food from the pantry are unemployed adults.
"It gets me riled up when I start hearing that none of these people are working. That couldn't be further from the truth. Most of these people are working one or two jobs," Unger said.
Also, residents don't abuse access to free food. People are also surprised to find out that as many as 60% of customers at DMARC pantries last year only came in one or two times during the year.
The data has provided value looking at business decisions about where there may be holes in the pantry network, or places that could use a mobile pantry. DMARC also provides information to the Iowa Legislature and local government.
Nearly 42% of DMARC's customers are on SNAP, but Unger said more than 85% of those people who receive food from DMARC are eligible for SNAP. Income eligibility for SNAP in Iowa is 160% of the federal poverty level, which is about $21,700 for an individual or about $44,400 for a family of four.
At 160% of poverty level, the SNAP benefit is about $23 a month. The application form in Iowa is 16 pages long and includes more stringent asset tests. Then there are quarterly reviews to confirm information.
"A lot of people do the calculus that I'm going to do all of this work for $23 a month? The squeeze isn't worth the juice. And then there are language barriers that are a problem for some folks," Unger said. He added, "The bottom line is people don't make what it costs to live."
The University of Illinois Farmdoc Daily on Friday released a report looking at SNAP and the farm bill. https://farmdocdaily.illinois.edu/…
About DMARC https://www.dmarcunited.org/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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