Iowa food bank funding still uncertain

Centers pushing for tax checkoffs, tax exemptions

Published: February 23 2014 | 4:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:01 am in

Iowa food bank leaders and partner agencies are working to bolster volunteers and community donations as state funding for the next fiscal year remains uncertain.

Though some lawmakers are pushing for food bank support, leaders in Des Moines have disagreed on whether the state should offer more support of Iowa food banks at a time when some agencies are noting increased demand.

The debate comes after Gov. Terry Branstad left food bank funding out of this year's state budget proposal. Though Branstad included $1 million in the budget for the food bank system on the condition the state's food banks could raise a matching $1 million privately in 2013, no money has been set aside this year.

Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s chief of staff, said the funding was left out because the Food Bank of Iowa did not make a funding request to the Governor’s office. The governor previously has said private donations are the best way to support food banks.

Possible funding sources

This legislative session, food banks are advocating for two bills — one that would exempt the eight Feeding America food banks from sales tax — and another that would create an income tax check-off that would place food banks on the state income tax forms and allow Iowans to direct money toward them.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who is co-sponsoring the check-off bill, said it has bi-partisan support. He added the bill likely would split the check-off funds, with 45 percent going toward food banks and dining areas, 45 percent going toward meals on wheels, and 10 percent going toward a unique grant system that would encourage innovative ways to get hungry people food.

Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who also is chairman of the senate health and human services budget subcommittee, said the subcommittee plans to fund the food banks again. But a bill including food bank funding may meet resistance in the governor's office, he added.

"Last year we wanted the food banks to match it and they exceeded that, and they have presented material to members of the committee that show the need is still there," Hatch said. "I think we want to make sure they are not totally dependent on state appropriations, so it will include a match on their part.

"But we also want to provide essential foods to families and especially to children and when we partner with an agency it makes it all that much better."

Hatch said he wasn't sure how much money would be included, but discussions on that are expected to begin in the next three weeks.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said she hopes there eventually will be a standing appropriation — an ongoing, committed dollar amount — for food banks, so legislators wouldn't have to battle for it every year.

"I think that we as a state have a responsibility to make sure people are fed well, and it doesn't make sense that a state like Iowa that prides itself in agriculture and what we produce for our people wouldn't have adequate dollars to help feed families, so I am very supportive of this and believe it's critical for us to be able to take care of our people."

Food bank funding

Though federal support for food banks has declined in recent years, the Farm Bill passed earlier this month actually will increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) by $205 million across the country.

But even with that increase, Cory Berkenes, state director of the Iowa Food Bank Association, said state funding will continue to be crucial. With the $1 million in state match money last year, Berkenes said food banks will be able to provide nine million meals by the end of the fiscal year.

Without state funding moving forward, Berkenes said four and a half million meals could be in jeopardy.

"One thing we really like to focus on is the public private partnership," Berkenes said. "The state knows they can't end hunger, and there's not enough funding at the private level to end hunger. So if we can find a way to work together, that's the best way to work."

Even though state unemployment is decreasing, Berkenes said food banks are still seeing the need for food increase. According to the Iowa Food Bank Association, agencies are about 64.5 million meals short of meeting hunger needs in the state.

Funding issues could have ripple effects

If state funding doesn't come through, it could have an effect on food banks and the partner agencies they serve — such as food pantries, soup kitchens and day care centers that serve low-income clients — that tend to rely on them for food at a discounted price, helping them to stretch their donation dollars further.

Amanda Peiper, food reservoir director at the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) in Hiawatha, said funding uncertainties mean they may not be able to provide the same amount of food to their partner agencies, raising the need for more community support.

The food reservoir gets its food from a number of sources, including retailers and area restaurants. Some of the food also is bought from wholesale or resale vendors, which allows the food bank to distribute it at 19 cents a pound, or less, to its partner agencies.

Peiper said the needs of HACAP's partner agencies trickle up to the food bank, and losing funding could make it difficult to keep up with demand for food.

Agency partners, such as the Crisis Center of Johnson County, obtain a significant portion of the food they are able to provide for clients from food banks such as HACAP. Last year, the Crisis Center received 177,788 pounds of food from HACAP in exchange for maintenance fees of $29,493, which comes out to about 17 cents per pound.

Sarah Benson Witry, food bank and emergency assistance director at the Crisis Center of Johnson County, said getting food from HACAP is helpful because the center knows it can rely on HACAP to have food items available — which allows both the center and its clients to plan — at a low cost.

"Right now, we are able to purchase, across all our sources, four pounds of food for every dollar donated to us," Benson Witry said. "And a big part of the reason we are able to leverage those dollars so well is because part of our purchasing is with the HACAP food reservoir."

Increasing need

The Crisis Center receives about 17 percent of its food from HACAP and has experienced a 34 percent increase in visits for food over the past two years. HACAP serves 97 partner agencies, most of which, Peiper said, rely solely on it for food.

"If we have to reduce the amount of food we get from HACAP, we either have to significantly increase the amount we spend on food or reduce the amount of food we have available for our clients," Benson Witry said. "If you lose a food source, you either purchase food to make that up, or not purchase the food and people get less — it's just the basic cause and effect."

According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12.6 percent of Iowans are food insecure, meaning they had inconsistent access to adequate food, limited by lack of money or other resources. The national average is 14.7 percent.

Benson Witry said the well-being of partner agencies, such as the Crisis Center, largely depends on the state’s food banks.

"We are seeing a lot of need, and so we definitely need HACAP to continue to have a lot of food because we need them more than ever right now, and if they do well, we do well," Benson Witry said.

There are 25,790 food-insecure people in Linn County and 18,480 in Johnson County, according to 2011 data from Feeding America, a not-for-profit organization that tracks hunger in the United States.

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