Addressing the Root Causes of Hunger and Poverty

 

By Luke Elzinga, Communications and Advocacy Manager, DMARC

In Polk County, Iowa, 52,000 people are food insecure, and an average of 18,500 people use a food pantry every month. October is here, and Hunger Awareness Month is in full swing. DMARC has been proud to be recognized as a leader in efforts to alleviate food insecurity and assist those who face it in Greater Des Moines. But we’ve learned over the years that only through evolving as an organization and adapting to the needs of the people whom we assist are we most effective in impacting positive change in their lives.

The Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network was founded in 1976. Since its founding, we have been constantly changing and adapting, and in the past decade, we have made large strides to expand access to food pantries, increase distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, and explore innovative solutions to improve our services.

Eleven years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, DMARC learned the people who used our food pantries had three times the incidence of diabetes than the general population of Polk County. It was an eye-opening discovery, and a pivotal moment in our history. We established healthy food guidelines and transitioned our food supply toward more fresh produce and whole grains and away from items high in sugar, fat, and salt.

We also began to look at areas of our community with high need and low access to healthy food. Thanks to the help of a former board member, we created a data visualization dashboard to literally show our data geographically and map out what food insecurity in our community looks like. What we found proved what we already knew anecdotally: food insecurity exists everywhere in Greater Des Moines. This prompted us to expand access to ensure that everyone in our community can easily visit a food pantry when they need to.

In 2016, DMARC launched its first Mobile Food Pantry, a fully-functional food pantry on wheels, and two more Mobile Food Pantries were added to our fleet in 2018. DMARC Mobile Food Pantries now visit 28 sites, in addition to six “Refuel Station” stops at Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Iowa club locations. Using the data collected and our mapping capabilities, we were able to place these in areas of town that lacked sufficient food pantry access. We’ve also expanded access at brick and mortar food pantries. Since we moved into our current facility at 1435 Mulberry Street at the start of 2014, the DMARC Food Pantry Network has expanded its open pantry hours by 73%.

We continue to pursue innovative solutions to provide more fresh produce and healthy options at our food pantries. At the end of 2016, DMARC was awarded the Ignite Community Innovation Award for $30,000 to develop our “Food Pantry 2.0” pantry distribution model concept. With Food Pantry 2.0, each household that goes through intake receives a number of points based on their household size. Items within the food pantry are scored on a 1-5 point scale, with 1 being the most nutritious and 5 being the least nutritious. The healthier the food items a household chooses, the more total food they can potentially receive— and our data has shown people are making the shift to healthier food options and more fresh fruits and vegetables. The program began as a pilot with the food pantry at West Des Moines Human Services in 2017, and has since expanded to the DMARC Mobile Food Pantries, Polk County Northside Food Pantry, and both St. Vincent de Paul food pantries, which are data partners of DMARC.

As a result of these efforts to expand access and provide a healthier and more inviting food pantry experience, we are assisting more people in our community than ever before in our Food Pantry Network’s 43-year history. This past year, the DMARC Food Pantry Network assisted over 54,000 unique individuals. And we continue to see increases in use throughout our Food Pantry Network.

Last month, the USDA announced that the food insecurity rate for U.S. households has finally declined to the pre-recession level of 11.1%, last seen in 2007. It has taken us a dozen years just to get back to the point where only one in ten Americans faces food insecurity.

If we’re serious about ending hunger and food insecurity—as an organization, a nonprofit sector, a community, and a nation—it will take much more than providing healthier options and more open hours at food pantries. We must evolve and adapt together across all sectors—nonprofit, public, and private—so we can truly start to address the root causes of poverty in our community. Health care, housing, child care, and education costs have all risen significantly over the past four decades, while wages have largely remained stagnant. We will only be able to address these issues this if we create a broad coalition to do so.

People are still struggling every day in our community to make ends meet, despite all our best efforts. The idea of putting ourselves out of business is something we talk about in the nonprofit sector all the time.

But if we keep only providing “band-aid solutions”—temporary remedies to larger, structural issues of inequality—without also advocating for policies that would address those inequalities, we will never succeed in that idealistic vision.

That's why, in addition to defending important programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, DMARC is engaged in advocacy efforts to eliminate the Child Care Cliff and increase the affordability of child care in Iowa, pursue sales-tax exemptions for diapers and period supplies (eliminating the #TamponTax),  and increase access to affordable housing in our community. And this spring, we’ll be launching a new storytelling workshop and training series to empower people who use food pantries to engage with elected officials and community leaders.

We’re working hard to end food insecurity in our community. Here are some ways you can help us:

  • Host a fund or food drive – Help us meet our immediate needs by hosting a fund or food drive with your workplace, congregation, friend group, etc. And don’t be afraid to get creative with your drive! DMARC can purchase anywhere from two to six times the amount of food that the average consumer can in the grocery store, so if you want to make a bigger impact, consider donating funds through a virtual drive. And if you do solicit donations for food, don’t forget to ask for healthy items that are low in sugar, fat, and salt.

  • Advocate – Raise the issue of food insecurity and poverty with your elected officials, and advocate for policies that would address root causes. Sign up to receive monthly advocacy updates and action alerts from DMARC to stay engaged and up-to-date on the issues.

  • Volunteer – There are a number of ways to volunteer your time with DMARC. Serve on a committee, such as our Spring Greens planning committee or Young & Hungry; volunteer as a personal shopper with our Mobile Food Pantry; or participate in our largest food sorting event of the year in May 2020, following the National Association of Letter Carriers’ (NALC) Stamp Out Hunger™ food drive.

 


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