Iowa Democratic lawmakers call for state to allocate $30M to food assistance

Published: Jan. 5, 2021 at 10:38 PM CST
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CORALVILLE, Iowa (KCRG) - A group of Iowa Senate Democrats is calling for Iowa to allocate around $30 million toward food assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state currently has about $1 billion between its rainy-day funds and budget surplus from the last fiscal year.

“This is about as bad as we’ve seen in my years in Iowa legislature. I think this is the worst situation we’ve ever seen, and so it’s raining, it’s a thunderstorm. We need the state to step in and help people who need help,” Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg, of Linn County, said.

Hogg is one of the senators spearheading the proposal, which he said is flexible and not set in stone at this point. Instead, he said, Senate Democrats have heard and considered various options for distributing the funding, including money going to Iowa food pantries to help with home deliveries or even to restaurants to bolster their take-out services.

While these ideas are being drafted into a formal proposal, Hogg said the more important piece is to get state lawmakers discussing the plan as soon as the legislative session starts next week.

“I’m looking for kind of win-win opportunities here that help families in Iowa who urgently need help and also can help our farmers and our grocery stores and potentially even our restaurants,” Hogg said.

During a news conference on Dec. 22, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state first needs to use money it receives from the federal government in the December stimulus package for statewide pandemic-relief measures before it considers tapping into its reserves.

“We have to remember, while the state of Iowa is really in great fiscal health, when you consider the year that we just went through, whether it’s COVID-19 or it’s the drought or it’s the derecho that hit a large majority of our state, we are not through COVID-19,” Reynolds said. “And so we have to monitor it very carefully and continue to see what the impact is to the revenues to the state, so we need to be mindful of that as well, and if we deplete the cash reserves, we have to be mindful of how we replenish them.”

Feeding America reports 80% of food banks across the country are serving more people now than they did before the pandemic. The Northeast Iowa Food Bank in Waterloo, which supplies food to other agencies and programs in a 16-county area, is one of them.

“We have a system that’s set up to get food out into the community at all times, but then all of a sudden, the need is that much more. It really does tax the system,” Barb Prather, the organization’s executive director, said.

Prather said the number of people in northeast Iowa considered food insecure — meaning they don’t have access to an adequate supply of food — is estimated to increase from about 43,000 people prior to the pandemic to about 52,000 people. The Northeast Iowa Food Bank has responded to that jump, as Prather said the number of people it serves and the amount of food it is now distributing are both about 20% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The Coralville Community Food Pantry said it’s seen an even bigger increase since last March.

“In the last nine months, if we compare that to the same nine months in 2019, we’ve seen probably about a 40% increase as far as how many families we’ve served, how much food we’re providing to the community,” John Boller, executive director of the Coralville pantry, said.

Boller said, thanks to community generosity, the Coralville Community Food Pantry has a solid stock of food and supplies and is able to keep up with the increased demand. He said he believes the best way for state lawmakers to help Iowans in need is through direct payments.

“Food is really helpful, but cash is infinitely more effective in reducing poverty,” Boller said.

Prather, with the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, said legislators approving a sales-tax exemption for food banks on tangible goods would, in turn, help her organization provide food to people who need it.

“It’s something that we’ve advocated for, for years, and we’ve asked,” Prather said. “We got very close at the last session, but at the last minute, it got stripped out, unfortunately.”

Both the Coralville Community Food Pantry and Northeast Iowa Food Bank said what they need most, though, is a hole lawmakers can’t really fill: more volunteers.

“We still have to pack backpacks. We still have to pack food boxes. We still have to sort food,” Prather said.

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