AMES - Every day, more than 400,000 Iowans go without the food they need to be healthy. They are food insecure, and Iowa State University Extension researchers are trying to understand why.
"Many families across the state don't have regular access to nutritious food," said Kimberly Greder, an ISU Extension family life specialist and associate professor of human development and family studies. "There are several compounding factors that can cause food insecurity, that we are still trying to understand."
Those compounding factors include poverty -- simply not having the money to purchase food -- as well as a lack of knowledge and skills in managing resources, proximity to food sources and the economy.
"This is definitely a growing concern in Iowa," Greder said. "Some people don't want to think about it. Others may think that people who go without food are lazy, don't want to work or can't manage money, but it can be more complex than that."
Greder and other ISU researchers have been studying the change in number of households in Iowa that have become dependent on some sort of food assistance from 2006 to 2008.
The researchers found an average of five to 10 percent increase in food assistance participation from 2006 to 2008 in the counties that were being studied.
The demographics in Iowa are similar to the rest of the country, Greder said. Those most at risk of going without food are single female-headed households, unmarried women with young children, and African American and Hispanic households.
"Individuals with young children are always at higher risk to become food insecure, because they have another mouth to feed who can't contribute," Greder said.
Proximity to food sources quickly becomes an issue, especially to households with infants. In small-town Iowa, there might be a grocery store. Even if the food is higher-priced, people in town can walk to the store. However, if they reside in the country and don't have reliable transportation, they won't be able to purchase the necessary food when they need it.
Places like inner city Des Moines can be prone to the same problem. According to Greder, it isn't very practical to try and carry an infant through the snow or on the bus, in the middle of winter, but many people have little choice.
If it becomes impossible or impractical to visit a grocery store, many households will turn to shopping at the local convenience stores. These stores have higher prices with lower quality food, which doesn't allow people to stretch their budget, Greder said.
The most common and well known way to get free or discounted food is to visit a food pantry. Most are run by volunteers and don't provide much stability. The local community has to be active to promote the pantry, which may not always happen. In addition to local donations, food banks (warehouses) get food from big companies, which they send to various pantries.
Based on statistics from pantries that report to the Department of Human Services, the number of people visiting pantries increased from 159,284 in 2006 to 178,647 in 2007. There were more than 2.1 million visits per year to pantries in Iowa, and the demographic has broadened. Now people with jobs, married couples and people without children are visiting pantries to get their basic needs fulfilled.
"We've seen far more need out there than can be fulfilled. The huge increase is, in part, due to better advertising, but there is also an increasing need. These programs are limited in their ability to help by their resources and funding," Greder said.
People typically learn about food pantries through local advertisement (on community bulletin boards and newspapers) and through assistance programs (WIC, Food Assistance and community action agency programs) they currently participate in.
Some communities have soup kitchens, which are open a few days a week, to provide a meal for the less fortunate. These date back to the Great Depression, when there was a large percentage of the population that needed food.
"It's great that people are stepping up and responding," Greder said. "They're doing a good job, but this won't end food insecurity and hunger - it's more of a bandage. We need to work on helping people have the knowledge and skills early on - basic life skills - to stay employed with an income and manage their resources properly so they can become less dependent on community services."