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The fight against hunger existed across Iowa pre-pandemic; now it’s heightened.

Panelists discuss systemic barriers that lead to food insecurity ahead of Thursday event


Iowa feeds the world, yet many in our state do not know where to turn for their next meal. On Thursday, the Business Record, dsm Magazine and ia Magazine will kick off the Iowa Stops Hunger event series.

The panel will explore hunger in Iowa, whom it affects and how the pandemic has made this problem even worse. Our panelists will outline the issue and discuss what individuals and businesses can do to help.

Details: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday | Register to attend the free virtual meeting

Ahead of the panel, we asked our panelists to describe one of the biggest systemic barriers that lead to food insecurity. Here’s what they said. 

Chris Nelson, president and CEO, Kemin Industries
A key concept in understanding food insecurity is a shortage of calories, also known as insecure nutrition, especially for children. The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical to their development. Insecure nutrition leading to chronic malnutrition greatly threatens a child’s future.  

In the U.S., food insecurity and poverty are directly linked and collectively increase chronic health issues. Poverty is often responsible for malnourishment, but it also impedes education on understanding the caloric and nutritional needs of children. The United Nations considers obesity as a form of food insecurity due to malnutrition. With 1 in 6 families struggling to obtain nutritious food every day, children are less likely to thrive, which deepens the cycle of poverty and hinders their future potential. 

Globally, the biggest food insecurity challenge is the lack of protein, the leading cause of stunting in children. An estimated 149 million children under the age of 5 are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Of those children, more than 80 million are in India, which creates a problematic future for their health and potential and impacts the country’s economy if future generations are mentally and physically underdeveloped. 


Deann Cook, executive director, United Ways of Iowa
Over one-third of Iowa’s households cannot meet a budget that covers their basic needs. The ALICE Report for Iowa survival budgets consists of only the most essential categories: housing, transportation, food, health care and child care. Most of these expenses are fixed on a monthly basis. One of the only areas of spending flexibility for families living on the edge is food – they eat fewer meals, cheaper foods or go without to meet their other financial obligations.

Many people casually dismiss families who struggle to make ends meet as having poor budgeting skills. The reality is that they simply cannot earn enough to sustain a family even when working multiple jobs. The costs of all essential items in a family budget have grown significantly in the past 10 years while wages have stagnated. Iowans are cobbling together low-wage jobs with uncertain hours and no benefits to survive. The inability to secure stable work that allows workers to support their households leads to family instability. One of the leading indicators of this is food insecurity, as we saw by the massive, immediate need for food during the pandemic. 


Linda Gorkow, executive director, Iowa Food Bank Association
Food insecurity is found in every county across Iowa. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight against hunger existed across Iowa. According to Feeding America research, in 2019, 10% of Iowans were identified as food insecure (meaning not having access to enough food to live an active, healthy lifestyle). 

Factors such as loss of a job, illness or an unexpected negative life event tipped working Iowa families as well as seniors into a state of food insecurity prior to the pandemic. Now, with the COVID pandemic affecting Iowans’ ability to earn a healthy income and schools out of session (where school-aged children receive breakfast and lunch), even more Iowans have been pushed into a life seeking additional food for their families. Food banks and pantries are experiencing an increase in need with an additional 165,000 Iowans joining the 340,000 pre-COVID Iowa residents experiencing hunger. The pandemic has pushed Iowa’s food insecurity rate from 10% pre-COVID to a projected 14.9% with approximately 470,000 total Iowans currently seeking additional food.   

Even before COVID-19, one “bad month” could be enough to plunge a household into food insecurity. Layoffs at work, unexpected car maintenance or an accident on the job can suddenly force a family to choose between buying food and paying bills. Working families across Iowa face countless situations that can result in food insecurity and hunger. Many working families, including thousands of households who don’t qualify for federal nutrition assistance, depend on the Feeding America network of food banks to help make ends meet during difficult times.  

Factors outlined above trap many Iowans in a lonely and devastating cycle of hunger. The face of hunger in Iowa is changing. The elderly and working families experiencing difficult times are forced to make tough choices between rent and food to eat or fixing their car and purchasing groceries.  

Imagine that you had just enough money to buy food for the week, with nothing left over to pay your utility bills or buy bus fare to get to work. Many families in need face these tough choices every day.   


Nalo Johnson, division director, Health Promotion & Chronic Disease Prevention, Iowa Department of Public Health

The compounding nature of poverty is a systemic barrier leading to food insecurity. People who struggle to comfortably meet their basic needs live under fragile circumstances. The pandemic is a good example of how circumstances may change that are outside of one’s control and people may find themselves in a situation of need that they didn’t have previously. Having social supports, including federal and state nutritional assistance programs and agencies such as food banks and food pantries, helps to relieve some of the food insecurity burden. However, these social supports are meant for transitory use and do not address the larger systemic issue of poverty in our communities. 

Food insecurity is one social determinant of health – an example of those social, economic and environmental barriers that impact health outcomes. Other social determinants include things like educational access, housing stability, transportation access, and access to quality and consistent health services. The interrelated nature of social determinants calls attention to the fact that if someone is experiencing a stressor in one area of their life, inevitably every area of their life is affected. Thus, one’s food security is not only predicated on consistent access to nutritious foods, but is also impacted by one’s social, economic and environmental situation.  


Mike Naig,secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, will also speak on the panel and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg will kick off the event. Register>>

Iowa Stops Hungeris a yearlong Business Publications Corp. initiative to bring awareness and action to food insecurity in Iowa.

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