Six representatives of the Hunger Free Dallas County coalition briefed the Perry City Council Monday on their ongoing efforts to increase access to nutritious food for low-income residents of the county and encourage donations to the coalition’s ongoing efforts to feed the neediest.
One challenge faced by Hunger Free Dallas County lies in changing the common perception that everyone around here has enough food to eat.
“I think that there might be a perception that everything is fine and that needs are being met,” said Beth Frailey, community health coordinator with the Dallas County Public Health Department. “However, we know that nearly 10 percent of Dallas County residents are food insecure, and federal safety-net programs like SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, have been cut a lot. So a family of four that receives $24,000 in income would receive about $40 a month for food stamps, which is not enough to feed a family of four.”
As federal and state support has shrunk, the Hunger Free Dallas County coalition has worked since 2015 to expand the borders and hours of local food pantries in Dallas County and has partnered with the Food Bank of Iowa to increase the number of mobile food pantries, Frailey said.
Along with the dozen food pantries in cities around the county, the Perry Community School District also offers food support as a satellite for the Food Bank of Iowa. PCSD School-Community Liaison Megan Maylum said about 75 percent of the Perry Elementary School students qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program.
“The vast majority of those are free lunches, which means they are pretty low on the poverty scale,” Maylum said. “So we have partnered with the Food Bank of Iowa, and we have a food pantry at the high school, which is accessed by all the students throughout the district.”
Maylum told the council a story about a high student student who was pregnant but still carrying on full-time in school while also working 30 hours a week. She said this student had younger siblings at home, and her mother was also pregnant.
“They were under a lot of strain,” Maylum said, “and as we heard, 40 bucks a month for food is not very much, so we were able to supplement her family with food and help her gain some access to other community resources as well. So that was great. We have a lot of stories like that.”
The Food Bank of Iowa also supplies a backpack program at PHS that serves about 50 students a month. The backpacks give students a discreet way of carrying home food without being teased or taunted by their more fortunate classmates.
“It’s meant to be supplementary,” said Maylum, as she emptied the meager contents of a backpack for the council’s inspection, “but for some, this is what they have.”
Aubrey Alvarez, executive director of Eat Greater Des Moines, said the backpack program could easily serve twice as many students if the funding was available. Alvarez also proposed a new food program for the Perry area — a free evening meal.
“How can we bring together the right people, the right resources, whether that’s churches or other community members, to offer a free meal in the evening?” Alvarez asked the council.
Perry City Council member Dr. Randy McCaulley noted the Heartland of Christ in Perry has been serving a monthly free supper for several years. Alvarez said in some communities the churches share the responsibility, with each having its own set day, and in other places a central location works well for all the meals.
“You know your community best, and you know maybe where there’s some options,” Alvarez said, urging that Perry “really just try to add another resource into the community, where the backpack program and both of the pantries just haven’t quite been able to meet all the need that we know there is. We just wanted to put that out there to the council as well and see what your thoughts are and what opportunity there is for the council and Hunger Free Dallas County to collaborate.”
McCaulley mentioned the Perry Ministerial Association as a possible coordinator of a meal program, and Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson said HomeCare Services Inc.’s congregate meals program serves lunch to area senior citizens five days a week at the McCreary Community Building.
“It would be interesting to transition that from a senior meal to a community meal,” Peterson said. “It would be interesting to see something like that expanded to all ages.”
Peterson said he has seen children spend their day at the MCB and buy food from the vending machines for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“To see kids eat their three square meals a day of Snickers, Doritos and Mountain Dew — it’s sad to see that happen,” he said, “so it would be great to be involved in something like that.”
Perry Food Pantry Coordinator Lou Hoger said the pantry supplied 164 households in 2017, and they used the service 483 times, and average of three times a year. He said the food pantry’s transition to its new location at 3000 Willis Ave. has so far been successful, with 17 active volunteers staffing the shelves and five more now in training.
“We actually have a lot of older individuals that come,” Hoger said. “I think clients are being very well served by our volunteers. I think there’s a little more care and compassion by the people who are assisting.”
Bruce Thorsen, a founding member Hunger Free Dallas County and until recently a member of the Dallas County Board of Health, praised his fellow members’ efforts and said the new location of the Perry Food Pantry should be an improvement.
Thorsen said a survey of mobile pantry users revealed “a lot of them were not even aware that the Perry Food Pantry existed, and I think now that it’s moved and is a little closer in town, I think that will help its visibility.”
He said the low-income population served by the county’s food pantries faces particular challenges.
“A lot of them have transportation barriers,” Thorsen said. “A lot of them are rural elderly, so that is one of the things that we continue to work on is how can we get some food to these people who can’t get there.”
He also praised the unique value of the Dallas County Hospital as a site for the monthly mobile food pantry.
“One of the great things that I think you’ve got here in Perry is the fact that the Dallas County Hospital is one of the sites for the mobile pantry, and they’re serving a lot of people,” Thorsen said. “That’s great. There’s not a lot of hospitals in Iowa that are doing that. In fact, I think Dallas County Hospital is probably one of maybe three or four. It’s a great thing that the hospital is serving the community in that way.”
Thorsen also told the council about the recent creation, through a collaboration with Scott Cirksena of the Dallas County Foundation, of the Hunger Free Dallas County Endow Iowa fund.
“This is something that the Dallas County Foundation will manage,” he said. “The reason that we looked at setting up an endowment — and our goal is to raise $3 million for the endowment — is we think that’s a long-term solution. All the pantries in Dallas County, congregate meal sites and school backpack programs will be able to apply to this endowment fund for grants on an ongoing basis.”
Thorsen said the endowment will be “something that stays around and will provide that 4 percent, $120,000 a year in grants, and something that will sustain food security and help end hunger in Dallas County.” He asked whether a member of the Perry City Council would be willing to volunteer to sit on the coalition’s board.
“Lots of need out there,” said Perry Mayor John Andorf, in thanking the Hunger Free Dallas County representatives for their update. “We’ve had some good sharing of ideas and some communication. I really appreciate your coming up and sharing with us and your day-to-day, ongoing work in trying to reach out more.”
The Hunger Free Dallas County project was born in the fall of 2014 through a partnership of the Hunger Free Iowa Initiative, the Dallas County Department of Health and local volunteers interested in battling hunger in Dallas County.
A recent study by the United Way of Central Iowa found about one-third of Iowans do not earn enough money to cover the basic costs of living, such as food. In towns like Perry and Minburn, more than 40 percent of the population is classified as income vulnerable.
A number of passionate volunteers and anti-hunger groups in Dallas County are partners in the Hunger Free Dallas County project. The groups include:
- Adel Good Samaritan Food Pantry
- Dallas County Community Services
- Dallas Center Food Pantry
- Dallas County Hospital
- Dallas County Public Health Department
- Eat Greater Des Moines
- Food Bank of Iowa
- Heart of Iowa Regional Transportation Authority (HIRTA)
- Mercy Health Network
- New Opportunities
- Perry Area Food Pantry
- United Way of Central Iowa
- Waukee Area Christian Services
For more information about Hunger Free Dallas County or to volunteer, call Jennifer Walters at 515-993-1764 or email email@example.com. For more information about the Hunger-Free Iowa initiative, visit the Hunger Free Iowa website, or call the Food Bank of Iowa at 515-564-0330. For more information about Eat Greater Des Moines, email Aubrey Alvarez at firstname.lastname@example.org.