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Fighting hunger close to home

Volunteers package food at the 2014 Iowa Hunger Summit
A few weeks ago, I was invited on a media tour of the new Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank in downtown Mason City. The visit ended up as one of the most memorable experiences in my lifetime. No exaggeration.

Long-time volunteer Ozzie Ohl of Mason City walked me through the food bank’s much larger, more modern warehouse space. He asked me to “shop” the food bank just like one of the families who seek food assistance.

I received a number based on the number of members in my family (in this case, three), and then I grabbed a shopping cart, just like in a grocery store.

But unlike my typical food shopping trip, my choices were limited. I could only pick six cans of vegetables – peas, carrots and potatoes (not my favorite vegetables, for sure); six cans of fruit or juice – apricots and grapefruit juice, again not my first choice; three cans of tomatoes; three cans of soup; two boxes of cereal; three boxes of pasta; two jars of peanut butter; and one “extra,” such as toilet paper or laundry detergent.

Needless to say, my cart wasn’t full in the end. And there wasn't any meat, eggs or milk available at the time.

Hawkeye Harvest has served more than two times the number of people in 2014 than it provided emergency food to in 2010, Ohl told me. Although the economy is slowly crawling out of recession, many Iowa families are still struggling, especially with the rising food prices.

“We haven’t recovered yet. It hasn’t caught up with us here. Wages haven’t kept pace with food inflation,” Ohl said.

At the 2014 Iowa Hunger Summit in Des Moines last week, more than 600 community leaders, volunteers and students gathered together to learn more about hunger-relief efforts in Iowa and how they can help feed those in need. The annual summit is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau and FBL Financial.

Approximately 389,000 Iowans are struggling with food insecurity in 2013, or about 12.7 percent of the state’s population, according to Feeding America, a national food-relief organization.

About 31 percent of food bank users in Iowa are children under the age of 18, according to Feeding America’s 2014 “Hunger in America” food bank survey.

“It could be your classmates; it could be your co-workers; it could be your friend that becomes food insecure,” said Cory Berkenes, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association. “You don’t know what is going to happen in life. You could lose a job; you could have a fire; it could be a disaster or it could be an injury that keeps you out of work.”

Iowa food banks are getting creative to help local families struggling with food insecurity.

In 2010, the Northeast Iowa Food Bank started a mobile food pantry project, delivering food once a week to three or four of the rural communities outside the food bank’s Waterloo/Cedar Falls headquarters area.

In addition, Iowa farmers have joined the hunger fight. The Midwest Dairy Association has helped launch the nationwide Great American Milk Drive, inviting Iowans to make a donation online to deliver milk to local food banks. (At Hawkeye Harvest, the only milk I saw on the shelves was powdered milk.)

The America Needs Farmers (ANF) campaign, launched by the Iowa Farm Bureau and the University of Iowa Athletics, also has donated more than $70,000 since the initiative began in 2011.

Indeed, Iowans are stepping up to help their neighbors in need, as I saw at Hawkeye Harvest in Mason City.

About 22,900 volunteers work a total of 77,500 hours per week on hunger-fighting efforts in Iowa, according to Feeding America’s survey.

“Each week, there are people in Iowa working on hunger programs,” Berkenes said. “It takes businesses; it takes non-profits; it takes churches; it takes community groups. It takes everybody.”

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau's Senior Features Writer.