The Iowa Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health convened July 11 in Des Moines to prepare for a White House conference this fall on hunger in America, the first such conference in more than 50 years. Both conferences come at a crucial time as a growing number of Iowans and Americans struggle to put nutritious food on the table.
Nearly 300,000 Iowans, including 129,000 children, must make “tough decisions about providing food for their families or paying their rent or mortgage, paying for transportation, or paying for medical bills. These are choices that no one should have to make,” the Iowa Food Bank Association (iowafba.org/AboutHunger) states.
Blame their struggle on a “perfect storm” of high food and gas prices, supply chain issues and the return to normal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits from the increased benefits granted during the pandemic. In this week’s Catholic Messenger, Assistant Editor Anne Marie Amacher reports on the increased demand on food pantries across our diocese caused by the converging challenges. Larry Christ, president of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Burlington, said if the upward trend continues in his community, “we could see more than 1,000 families” for all of 2022. That is a significant number of families in a city of 24,325.
The White House conference, and the preparatory work leading up to it, aims to “drive significant change to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related disease and close the disparities around them,” states the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement. The Harkin Institute and several partner organizations convened the Iowa conference to gather ideas to share with the White House conference.
Food pantries alone cannot end hunger or solve the problems that cause it. In 1969, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health fostered a bipartisan effort to tackle hunger that led to an impressive U.S. food policy framework. However, what worked a half-century ago requires updating, modifications or new approaches. We need another White House conference with the same spirit of bipartisanship to address our nation’s food system, with a preferential option for our neighbors struggling to make ends meet.
Aubrey Alvarez of Eat Greater Des Moines, one of the Iowa conference panelists, provided a list of goals for redefining our food system. These goals align with our stewardship role and Pope Francis’ call for an integrated approach to our relationship with God, each other and all of God’s creation:
• Good food isn’t wasted.
• Our neighbors don’t go hungry.
• Everyone has access to healthy, locally produced food.
• Food is produced and transported using sustainable, environmentally friendly practices.
Alvarez said our state imports approximately 90% of its food — here, in the breadbasket of America! This reality explains the challenges we have experienced with supply chain interruptions during the ongoing pandemic. She also pointed out that 30% of the food on grocery shelves ends up in dumpsters. We must step up our food rescue efforts, which include innovative ideas such as mobile refrigerators at libraries and laundromats and other community gathering spaces.
Our efforts individually and collectively to work toward ending hunger can take a variety of forms based on the Catholic social teaching principles of see, judge and act:
• Visit the health.gov website (https://tinyurl.com/2n3jjaw5) to learn more about the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September. Conference organizers also welcome ideas and stories from all Americans, including people who have experienced the impact of hunger.
• Visit the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement for information about the Iowa Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health that took place July 11 (harkininstitute.drake.edu).
• Check out “10 Things to Know About Local Food Systems” on the website of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Farm, Food and Enterprise Development (https://tinyurl.com/44nzm7ch). The extension service poses the question: “What happens when our national food supply chain is disrupted by natural or human activities? More local production will increase Iowa’s food security.”
• Advocate for grants through the Iowa Economic Development office for the purchase of infrastructure, such as mobile refrigerators, by nonprofits and for-profits engaged in food rescue, food pantries and other programs that assist the hungry.
• Ask members of Congress (congress.gov) to support the Keep Kids Fed Act indefinitely. This bill equips schools, summer meal sites and childcare food programs with extra sources so they can continue to serve children through the 2022-2023 academic year. Child nutrition programs continue to face high food costs and supply chain disruptions.
• Support your community’s food bank (see list: iowafba.org/partner-food-banks). Volunteer at a food pantry in your community. As demand increases, so does the need for volunteers.
Jesus instructs us, his disciples, to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we follow his instruction, we will ensure that our neighbors don’t go hungry.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor