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Drop in Federal Funding Reason for Iowa Food Bank Bill

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DES MOINES, Iowa - A drop in federal donations has left Iowa food banks low on supplies and hopeful the Iowa Legislature will approve funding for the organizations.

Food bank officials said U.S. Department of Agriculture donations to organizations in Iowa and part of Nebraska are more than 1 million pounds less than in previous years, due primarily to increased food costs.

"We're not empty but we're critically low," said Linda Scheid, executive director of Sioux City-based Siouxland Food Bank, which serves eight counties in Iowa and three in Nebraska.

The week the Iowa Senate approved a measure that would provide $2 million to the Iowa Food Bank Association as well as income tax breaks to farmers who donate their leftover produce.

The bill was approved 34 to 15 over the objections of Republicans who argued the state funding was misplaced.

"(This bill) promotes the idea that every human need should be met by a government program," said Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme. "When we start funding charities like food banks, we are denying the opportunity for people to be charitable."

Sen. Jerry Behn, R-Boone, tried to amend the bill by eliminating the food bank funding, but his proposal was rejected.

"All my amendment does is say Iowa should not be in the grocery business. Let's let the private sector do what it does. Let's let food banks do what they do," Behn said.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, responded that if Iowa wanted to achieve Gov. Terry Branstad's goal of becoming the nation's healthiest state, "It starts with putting food in our children's bellies."

Last year, the Legislature approved $500,000 in funding for food banks, but Branstad vetoed the measure. He said private donations are the best way to support food banks.

Tim Albrecht, a Branstad spokesman, said the governor hasn't decided if he would sign the latest bill.

Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, said House Republicans like the tax credit for farmers but likely wouldn't support the food bank funding.

"There's just no way we have the resources to pick up the ball for everything the feds are dumping on us," he said. "We have to draw a line."

Carey Miller, executive director of the Food Bank of Iowa in Des Moines, said the USDA reduced donations to her group by 1 million pounds of food last year, then cut an additional 200,000 pounds this year.

Kim Jones, Iowa's USDA emergency food program administrator, acknowledged rising food prices have reduced the amount of food the agency can contribute and stay within its $3.8 million budget.

The decline in donations came amid a three-year-long increase in demand.

The USDA reports that the percentage of food-insecure Iowa residents rose from 12 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2013. That's a total of more than 400,000 people deemed food-insecure.

Miller blamed the economy for the increased demand.

"Those that have gone back to work are getting lower paying jobs or maybe work two part-time jobs," she said. "We are also seeing a lot of seniors on fixed income and a lot of kids."

Miller said $2 million in the Senate proposal would also help her organization cover the transportation cost of reaching 284 agencies in the 42 counties it serves.

Cory Berkenes, state director of the Iowa Food Bank Association, which serves eight distribution centers in the state, said lawmakers could provide crucial help.

"I don't think they really understand the need there is," he said.

Susan Ogborn, president of the Food Bank of the Heartland in Omaha, said Nebraska is having the same problem and is anxiously waiting to see if the Iowa bill passes. She noted Iowa and Nebraska are among 13 states that don't dedicate state money toward food banks.

"We're hoping if Iowa gets this through, we could use it as an example later," she said.

Berkenes said he met this month with Branstad, who expressed interest in matching private donations with state dollars.

"We are optimistic," Berkenes said of working with Branstad.

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