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DISPATCHES: Iowa, the 'World's Food Capital,' is Hungry

The face of hunger increasingly belongs to the working poor, like Kim Olsem, who has trouble feeding herself despite holding two jobs.

If hunger is an invisible problem in Iowa, blame it on people like Kim Olsem, a mother and a fighter, whose two jobs — one working with the elderly, the other working with schoolchildren — don't pay enough to feed her properly.

She is an unlikely face of hunger, one of a growing number of formerly middle-class Iowa residents who have dropped to the ranks of the working poor, those who make enough money to pay for rent, maybe transportation, but not much else. And like others in Iowa and around the country, even the charitable food pantry she counts on is running out of food.

“When I run out of money for my other needs, I come here,” said Olsem, 49, who stood in line at a West Des Moines food pantry just days before Christmas. “Food always comes last. My bills have to come first.

“Food,” she said, “is a luxury sometimes.”

“We were seeing folks who were volunteering and helping last year who are now on the other side of the counter coming to get food."

Demand for Food Assistance Increases Even as Recession Eases

Between 2009 and 2010, the height of the recession in Iowa, demand for emergency food increased 58 percent at the facility Olsem relies on for food and at the 11 other Polk County food pantries served by the Des Moines Area Religious Council, or DMARC.

Demand shows no signs of subsiding. It has increased another 11 percent this year.

And that has translated to this: Food pantries, like kitchen cupboards and the stomachs of people still in the workforce, are going empty.

“When you walk down the street, you don’t see homeless people lining the streets,” said Elisabeth Ballstadt, coordinator for the DMARC food program, the largest food pantry network in Iowa. “We have a lot of farmers markets and we’re a food-rich state, or at least we should be. It’s not in our faces every day, so we forget about it.”

With some key differences, hunger in central Iowa mirrors national trends. In its 2011 survey of 29 cities with populations greater than 30,000, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that all but four reported increases in requests for assistance. Requests for emergency food assistance increased on average by 15.5 percent.

Nationally, more than half of requests came from families; 26 percent were from people with jobs, 19 percent were elderly residents and 11 percent were homeless.

The hungry in central Iowa: more than 1,500 military veterans; more than 26,000 people who are profoundly poor; almost 2,500 elderly; 17,000 young adults and children; 14,000 people without jobs.

And nearly 13,000 people like Olsem, who don’t make enough to eat properly but earn too much money for government nutritional benefits.

As the need for help has  increased, food donations have remained flat, and DMARC’s cash reserves — like the savings accounts of many of the working poor the pantries serve — have dwindled.

As a result, DMARC officials made the difficult decision to cut by 40 percent the amount of food received by the 35,000 Polk County residents who annually rely on the pantries to feed their families.

In the national survey of mayors, 86 percent of the cities reported they made reductions in the amount of food each person could receive at a pantry visit.

Reducing the number of food items a family of four receives from 55 to 33 monthly is a "definitely a striking difference," Ballstadt said. The allotments include cereal, but no milk to put on it. Dairy has been eliminated altogether. There’s no juice.

It was that or turn more families away.

“Our food pantry coordinators have said that with the change in the food boxes, families don’t complain, they’re grateful for what they get. But there’s a desperation that wasn’t there before,” Ballstadt said. “Every family that walks through the door is in a more desperate place, has a more urgent personal need for that food.

“It’s not a case of ‘Oh, good, you have bread.’ It’s ‘thank God you have bread, because I don’t know what I’d do if you didn’t.’ It’s changed. There’s a flip in that.”

Hunger In The World's 'Food Capital'

While food in central Iowa is in short supply, irony is not.

Iowa bills itself as the world’s food capital and boasts some of the world’s most fertile, productive soil.

Polk County, home to the Iowa capital of Des Moines, is also home to the World Food Prize, an organization that celebrates with an elegant annual ceremony the accomplishments of “laureates” whose work has affected world hunger.

About $27 million is being spent to renovate the 103-year-old former Des Moines Public Library building to give the prize — whose sponsors liken it to the Nobel Prize for agriculture — a permanent headquarters.

Yet, one in five children in Polk County and one in six adults are considered “food insecure.” That's a broad federal definition that includes families who have enough to eat, but are consuming foods that lack nutritional value. It also includes families who are eating anything that resembles a real meal only a few times a week.

A Paycheck Away From Catastrophe

Olsem fits the first category: low on nutritional foods.

She is a paycheck away from sliding into the second: low on food, period.

She is one of the working poor, one of the thousands of people with low-paying jobs that DMARC helps. And she is increasingly desperate, something else she has in common with those who count on food pantries.

Since her job at a large insurance company was eliminated five years ago, she has made ends meet with two part-time jobs, one at a nursing home and the other at a school cafeteria. But she is barely scraping by. Her take-home pay of about $1,000 a month covers rent and her car payment.

“I get to eat at the places I work at, but I do have those days off, and it’s hard. Food is becoming more expensive. You can barely get a gallon of milk for under $3.”

It helps, she said, to be able to eat at the school cafeteria where she works.

And to eat that nursing-home food once a day.

Hunger, though, isn’t a problem all its own. Medication isn’t cheap, either, and people like Olsem, who eat food low in nutrition, are three times more likely than the general population to suffer from obesity and diabetes.

Neither of Olsem’s jobs offers health insurance or prescription drug benefits to help cover the cost of treatment for myriad health problems — diabetes, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, and high-cholesterol obesity.

It had been two weeks since the Clive woman had taken her diabetes meds — a risky choice her family reproached her for, but one Olsem said she saw no way to avoid in her paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

She was over her limit for financial assistance for medication at the county hospital, her car insurance was due and she owed money to the utility company. She doesn’t the time to look for a full-time job because she doesn’t have the money to quit either the nursing home or the school.

“I need to get a better job,” Olsem said, “but I’m afraid to make that change. What if I lose that job?”

A 12-Month Problem

Growing awareness that DMARC could no longer serve the metropolitan area’s hungry at the same level was met with a flurry of food drives and corporate donations in recent weeks, but the challenge will be to keep hunger in area residents’ faces after the holidays.

"There are so many middle-class families that were never in the system and don’t know where to begin to look for help."

“We always joke at the food pantry that families are only hungry at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Ballstadt said. “We see a rise in donations then, but we need that commitment every month.”

Media reports of signs of economic recovery add to the perception that Iowa’s food emergency is over.

“People forget that for this whole population of people in Polk County, it’s not good for them,” Ballstadt said. “They are, in fact, in a place where they’ve never been before and they’ve got no resources to tap into.”

“As others climb out, we’re still in the trenches,” said Kristine Frakes, DMARC’s development director. “It’s not going away.”

DMARC has seen the greatest increase in demand for services in Urbandale and, to a lesser extent, West Des Moines, Frakes said. In Urbandale, new applications for assistance are averaging about 10 a week.

“We were seeing folks who were volunteering and helping last year who are now on the other side of the counter coming to get food,” she said. “There are so many middle-class families that were never in the system and don’t know where to begin to look for help.

“They are desperate and call in tears,” she said. “It’s very hard.”

Olsem said she tries to remember her own admonishment to herself: “You can’t blame other people for your circumstances, and your life is what you make it.” But it’s difficult. 

“Do I get frustrated? Who doesn’t when you’re poor?" she said. "I think of this as temporary, and some day it will get better. It can’t always be like this. God, couldn’t be that cruel.”

Hunger By the Numbers

According to DMARC:

  • 48 percent of the 35,000 who will be served by DMARC food pantries this year are youth and children under age 25
  • Individuals who are homeless make up only 3 to 5 percent of clients served by DMARC food pantries
  • 1,500 clients are military veterans
  • 7 percent are 62 or older
  • 75 percent have an annual income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line
  • 37 percent of those served by the food pantries make too much money to qualify for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits
  • 40 percent of adults served by the food pantries are unemployed; those working are not earning a livable wage.
  • Individuals living in food insecure families are three times more likely than families that are food secure to suffer from obesity and diabetes.

You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.

Beth Dalbey (Editor) December 21, 2011 at 04:36 PM
My New Year's resolution is to remember that hunger is a year-round problem in central Iowa.
Deanna Howard December 21, 2011 at 04:48 PM
Well written article. Praying 2012 will be a much better year for many families.
Alison Gowans December 21, 2011 at 06:27 PM
Beth, I couldn't agree more. This is a good reminder that even when unemployment numbers are dropping, that doesn't mean everyone who is employed is able to make a living wage.
Jessica Miller December 21, 2011 at 09:33 PM
I think we should all give to our local food pantries in January. Money is usually better because most places receive discounts at local stores and the food banks.
Scott Raynor December 22, 2011 at 05:33 AM
Jessica has a very good point. I did a lot of research into hunger in the metropolitan Detroit area and every food pantry said they prefer monetary donations. I am not sure how it works here, but there was a massive food bank in Detroit that offered food pantries food at a rate of 10 cents per pound. A little can go a long way. Thanks for the article, Beth.

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