Food insecurity impacts our state in much bigger ways than most Iowans realize, said food-relief advocates at the annual Iowa Hunger Summit last week in Des Moines.

Even though Iowa currently boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, about 10 percent of the state’s population struggles with food insecurity, said Regenea Hurte, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association.

“So it’s not as easy as saying get a job,” Hurte said. “There are other barriers and issues that we need to address in order to come up with a real and legitimate answer to end hunger.”

More than 500 hunger fighters from across the state and the globe gathered for the Iowa Hunger Summit, sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau and FBL Financial Services.

Helping communities

Hurte, one of the summit’s panelists, said the impact of food insecurity extends beyond an individual or a family. All Iowans benefit when we fight to end hunger, she said.

“It isn’t just an issue for people who are facing hunger. It impacts our education system, our medical system and health care. It impacts our industries,” Hurte said. “If you are hungry, you can’t focus. You can’t learn. You can’t think. You can’t work. It impacts all of us. And it’s going to take all of us to come to the table.”

About one in eight Iowans struggles with food insecurity, according to the national food-relief agency Feeding America.

About 43 percent of food-assistance recipients in Iowa are children, Hurte said. And over 40 percent of Iowa children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Studies show that hunger impacts students’ ability to learn and retain information in school, Hurte said. Children who face food insecurity are more likely to repeat grades and receive lower test scores.

Iowans can “truly lift people out of poverty” by providing food assistance to children so they can perform at their best in school and, later on as adults, gain better-paying jobs, Hurte said.

Tackling food waste

One problem that hunger-relief advocates are trying to tackle is food waste.

About 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Iowans are coming up with innovative ideas to deliver edible and nutritious, but unsellable, food to the people who need it.

Earlier this year, the Des Moines-based convenience store chain Kum & Go partnered with Eat Greater Des Moines, a hunger-relief non-profit, to deliver unsold yet edible food to low-income apartment communities, school food pantries and local youth groups.

So far, Kum & Go stores across the Midwest have donated more than $4 million worth of food and provided about 150,000 meals to food-insecure Iowans, while reducing food waste going to landfills by 200,000 pounds, said Derek Nelson, director of sustainability at Kum & Go.

“Ultimately for our business, it was the right thing to do,” Nelson said.

Denise Osterhues, with Kroger Co., said the Cincinnati-based grocery retailer is focusing more on the quality, and not just the quantity, of the food it donates.

Specifically, Kroger has found that it’s easier to donate unsold meat, compared to fresh produce, because it is freezable, Osterhues says.

That’s welcome news, said Aubrey Alvarez of Eat Greater Des Moines, because there is a huge need for protein at local food pantries.

“If you take anything away from today, it’s to start with proteins because they go really quickly,” Alvarez said.