Fighting Food Insecurity and Poverty in Johnson County This Holiday Season

With winter fast approaching, nonprofit organizations in the Iowa City area, such as the Crisis Center, the Shelter House, and the Free Lunch Program of Iowa City, are all doing their part this holiday season to make sure no one goes without a meal or a warm place to sleep.

For these organizations, the winter is their busiest season. With more weekly visits to the food bank, located at the Crisis Center and less beds available at the Shelter House, these organizations are working around the clock to prevent an increase in food insecurity and homelessness in Johnson County, especially this holiday season.

The food bank at the Crisis Center provides weekly grocery assistance to residents of Johnson County, Monday through Friday. Clients are encouraged to choose and take items that will work best for their family. Once inside the food bank, clients can expect to choose from nonperishable items as well as produce, bakery, deli, dairy, and health and hygiene products, all of which are provided through donations.

However, even with weekly access to the food bank, residents of Johnson County are still going hungry.

The USDA defines food insecurity as, “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

Food insecurity is the outright hunger and the coping mechanisms households use to prevent hunger. Additionally, it is a household situation, not an individual one since it affects everyone in a household differently. These households may not necessarily be food insecure all of the time. It may mean that individuals are making trade-offs between basic necessities and buying nutritional food at some point in time.

In Johnson County alone, 14.1 percent of adult individuals are going hungry, according to the county’s Hunger Task report, which is lower than the national average of 14.2 percent, but higher than the state of Iowa’s average of 12.1 percent.

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Approximately 390,000 individuals are going hungry in the state of Iowa and around 19,000 in Johnson County alone. Of the 19,000 individuals, nearly 5,000 are children under the age of 18. These numbers tend to see a dramatic increase during the holiday season.

“Over the holidays, we tend to see more families taking advantage of our food bank,” said Sarah Benson Witry, the food bank and emergency assistance director of the Crisis Center. “The average pounds per visit has gone up by more than four pounds this year compared to last year.”

Fortunately, the Free Lunch Program of Iowa City recognizes the growing need and is stepping up to make sure no one goes hungry this winter.

The program has been serving up hot meals for citizens in the community who may not have access to food or have a tough time getting it since 1983 and have recently moved into a new building to keep up with the high demand.

“Most of our guests are from Shelter House, homeless, or very low income,” said Ronda Lipsius, co-director of the Free Lunch Program. “We have men, women and children dine with us.”

Over 900 volunteers serve and prepare nutritious meals using food donated through Table to Table, a local nonprofit organization, and from the HACAP Food Reservoir. On average, 130 meals are served each day and last year alone the program served over 41,000 meals to those in need.

“We provide a free hot meal every Monday through Saturday to anyone in the community who feels the need for a free meal. We even serve meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” said Lipsius. “We have an open door, full plate, and a no questions asked policy, so anyone who needs a free meal is welcome.”

Food insecurity and homelessness frequently go hand in hand. Families with a higher probability of homelessness often times are at a higher risk of food insecurity.

“If someone is going to be experiencing homelessness, they are also going to need some support getting food as well” said MacKenzie Bihl, marketing manager of the Shelter House. “It all kind of comes down to a financial crisis of some kind that brings them into a place of homelessness and food insecurity.”

In the state of Iowa, over 3,000 people are experiencing homelessness and last year alone the Shelter House in Iowa City housed 864 men, women, and children, an increase from 2014.

The Shelter House is the only emergency homeless shelter located in Johnson County and provides a number of different services to improve the quality of life for those experiencing homelessness. Some of those services include an emergency shelter, employment services, veteran services, housing services, drop-in services and mental health services.

Over the holiday season, the Shelter House sees a noticeable increase in clients staying at the house.

“Separate from the winter emergency shelter, we have a lot of overflow, which means people are welcome to stay in our lobby,” said Bihl. “We are given permission from the city to be able to allow people up to the maximum capacity to stay in our lobby.”

With this system in place, it allows individuals to be in from the cold and do not have to be turned away if the Shelter House does not have a bed available at the time.

As the season of giving is in full swing, there are many different ways to celebrate. The Crisis Center is encouraging residents of Johnson County to make a small monetary donation to their Project Holiday campaign and or food donations so that every family in Johnson County can put a meal on their table this holiday season. The Shelter House is also accepting donations for their out of the cold campaign to help fund the emergency shelter and keep everyone out of the cold this winter.

“Project Holiday allows families to receive a holiday meal. We try to provide a variety of food items that people can really come together around as a family and have a nice meal,” said Benson Witry. “It’s a really cool project that’s open to any of our clients and really anyone in need in Johnson County around the holidays.”