In the days leading up to Christmas, I make frequent trips to the grocery store, sometimes twice in one day, because I’m terrible at remembering to buy brown sugar for the holiday cookies — even if I write out a grocery list ahead of time.

These extra ingredients — plus the holiday ham, the gifts and wrapping paper, and the heating bill during this year’s early cold snap —  all are rough on the family budget.

Unfortunately, many Iowa families must make the choice to either “heat or eat” during the holiday season, said Ozzie Ohl, a volunteer at the Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank in Mason City.

“We have a lot of elderly (clients), and you’ve probably seen them in the grocery store. They’ve got a can in their hand, and they’re standing there, and you know the thought process that they are going through. Can I...