Food access in Johnson County: With food to spare, disparity remains

14 percent of Johnson County residents are food insecure -- one of the highest rates in the state of Iowa.
14 percent of Johnson County residents are food insecure — one of the highest rates in the state of Iowa.
By Erica Blair

While growing up in northeast Iowa, food was never a concern for Susan Anderson: Her family ate T-bone steaks each week, the refrigerator overflowed with food and two deep freezers were regularly stocked. And throughout her 20s, when she lived and worked in Tokyo as a part-time English teacher making $40,000 a year, Anderson often dined in restaurants. “We had all we could eat and more,” she said.

Today, however, food is not so abundant for the 55-year-old single mother of two. Since moving to Iowa City in 1993, Anderson, whose name was changed for this article, has held retail, day care and service industry jobs. Now disabled for orthopedic and anxiety disorders, she’s been out of work for several years. Yet throughout her entire motherhood, even as a full-time employee, she has needed help accessing enough food for her family.

At school, her sons have always qualified for free and reduced lunch. And to provide meals at home, Anderson makes weekly visits to the Crisis Center Food Bank, in addition to purchasing groceries with her recently reduced $35 in monthly SNAP benefits — enough for roughly one trip to the store. But with no car for the past eight years, she buys only what she can carry on the bus, making it difficult to stock up.

Defining the breadth of the issue

Susan Anderson is, according to a 2012 report by Feeding America, one of 18,640 Johnson County residents facing food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as the “lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.” About 14 percent of Johnson County residents are food insecure — one of the highest rates in the state of Iowa — and 40 percent of them don’t receive government food assistance.

The Crisis Center of Johnson County Food Bank is seeing even more visits than ever, says Food Bank and Emergency Assistance Director Sarah Benson Witry, with 12,778 individuals served in 2014. She adds that households now rely on the pantry for more of their food than in the past, a lingering symptom of the 2008 recession when high-paying jobs were exchanged for low-wage work without benefits.

Food insecurity affects 18,640 Johnson County residents.

On average, families visit 10 times per year, but the range of needs varies widely, Benson Witry said: According to her, roughly 20 percent of families visit only once during an unexpected emergency, while about 1 percent of families visit nearly every week to obtain their sole source of food.

“We’re having to do a lot of purchasing from the retail system because people’s needs are too great,” Benson Witry said. Last year, the food bank spent $74,000 on about 25 percent of its supply in order to cover what corporate and individual donations could not.

Adding to Johnson County’s large food-insecure population, Benson Witry says, are University of Iowa students. Though commonly assumed otherwise, many students receive no financial backing from their parents, and now more than ever, they face the harrowing odds of finding a well-paying job to pay off loans post-graduation. And because they have access to loans, students don’t qualify for some of the same programs as other low-income individuals.

“Students are making a choice,” Benson Witry said. “Do I go further into debt so that I can feed myself? Or do I reach out and try to get services?”

Why is food access a problem in Johnson County?

Compounding the food insecurity problem is Iowa City’s distinctly high cost of living, which directly affects how much people can spend at the store. About half of Iowa City residents are renters, and according to a 2013 report by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center, 63.5 percent of them are cost burdened, which means more than 30 percent of their income goes toward housing.

This is the highest rate in the state of Iowa. For a single mother to afford a two-bedroom apartment — with a fair market rate of $853 per month — she would need to work 2.3 minimum wage jobs, or 92 hours each week. When Little Village spoke with Mark Patton, Executive Director of the Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity, in September 2014, he noted that with an unhealthy vacancy rate of 0.5 percent (a healthy vacancy rate hovers around 5 percent) little competition exists between landlords, keeping rental prices high in Iowa City. According to Crissy Canganelli, executive director of The Shelter House, the vacancy rate is so low because Iowa City’s rental market caters to university students.

“It makes it that much more difficult for folks who are living in poverty and have no other resources, who are trying to live on service sector and minimum wage jobs,” she said.

While zoning regulations and the cost of land are barriers to increasing the amount of affordable housing in Iowa City, it really comes down to a lack of political will to address this deficit, she said.

About half of Iowa City residents are renters, and 63.5 percent of them are cost burdened, which means more than 30 percent of their income goes toward housing.

But there’s yet another issue when it comes to affordable housing: physical access to food. Looking at census tracts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas identifies two large urban regions in Johnson County that it classifies as food deserts, meaning low-income areas where a third of residents live a mile or more from a supermarket. In Coralville and Iowa City, the food desert to the west is bordered by Interstate 80 and Highway 1, and the food desert to the east slopes south along Highway 6 in what is often referred to as the Southeast Side.

The clustering of low-rent apartments in these regions away from affordable grocery stores means that low-income residents must choose between spending more of their budget on transportation or shopping for food at nearby gas stations with limited selections. Some people also seek affordable housing in isolated mobile home courts or even outside city limits, Benson Witry said, which further limits their physical access to food.

What are current area initiatives?

Coupled with access to affordable housing is access to land. Fred Meyer of Backyard Abundance, a local organization that helps people turn their grass lawns into productive and food-producing ecosystems, says that this is the greatest barrier for renters growing their own food. If there’s any land on the property, renters would need to ask permission from landlords to use it, and if that doesn’t work, they would need to buy community garden plots, which are often inconveniently located and require transportation.

“But even if they have all those things, we model our gardens after our industrialized agriculture system, which requires incredible amounts of energy to keep going,” Meyer said, “so you have to make frequent trips out there.”

Iowa City operates only one community garden, at Wetherby Park, with about 100 plots for Iowa City’s approximately 70,000 residents. Mike Moran, the Director of Parks and Recreation, notes that another community garden will be added this spring at Chadek Green Park, offering 50 more plots to the community. Still, Meyer says that even if land access wasn’t a problem, other barriers exist: equipment, knowledge and time.

“How do you tell a single mother of two, who’s working two jobs, to go out and maintain a garden?” he said.

Roughly 30 percent of Iowa City residents live below the poverty line, and following the national trend, incomes aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living. Like housing, food prices also continue to climb — especially in the produce section and at the meat counter. For instance, in 2014, the cost of oranges rose by about 17 percent and the cost of beef rose by about 10 percent. This is due to a number of factors, such as poor growing conditions (across the globe, droughts, flooding and extreme temperatures are occurring with more frequency), disease (new strains of the PED virus have killed millions of pigs, and bacteria has wiped out orchards of citrus trees) and transportation (even when gas prices subside, as they have for the past few months, food prices don’t always follow suit). All of this means that fresh fruits, vegetables and protein are harder to come by for low-income individuals than grain-heavy and calorie-dense processed foods, which have remained relatively stable over the years.

“Rather than trying to figure out how to get people access to food, which seems like the right thing to do, I’d really like to steer the conversation in another direction and talk about how we can promote equality in our community,” Meyer said, “so that the issue of food access starts to evaporate. It takes care of itself.”

Raising the minimum wage could be one step (of many) toward that direction. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, introduced by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller, would boost the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour over three years. Opponents argue that such a raise would cause a ripple effect, increasing costs throughout the entire food system and therefore increasing the cost of food. But the Food Labor Research Center at University of California Berkeley, which studied a predecessor of the Miller/Harkin bill in 2012 when $9.80 was on the table, reached a different conclusion: Prices at the store would grow by less than half of one percent, at most, while incomes for minimum wage employees would jump by 33 percent.

“If people had the opportunity to make enough money for themselves and their families, they would not be food insecure,” Benson Witry said. “That’s a pretty simple solution, but how you get there is really complicated.”

Roughly 30 percent of IC residents live below the poverty line.

How do we improve food access in Johnson County?

Last July, community members gathered in the Coralville Public Library to discuss just that at the first-ever Johnson County Hunger Forum. As a result of that event, city council member Kingsley Botchway and Crisis Center director Becci Reedus established the Johnson County Hunger Task Force, a group composed of government leaders, food pantries and other organizations working to alleviate hunger. Johnson County Social Services director Lynette Jacoby, who helped assemble members of the group, says that the purpose was to bring together people of various disciplines to collectively address hunger issues.

“We know that there are lots of different groups that are working on food insecurity and feeding Johnson County,” she said, “but a lot of them are working in their silos.”

The task force has identified priorities and formed three subcommittees: access, healthy foods and collaboration. Plans for county-specific assessments and surveys are underway, with the hope that results could be analyzed by summer of this year, Jacoby says.

In the meantime, other community members continue using creative strategies to improve food access. Meyer proposes one of the more unconventional approaches: Give people free food from the land itself. For him, the concept of the edible landscape initiative is simple: There’s plenty of land available right where we live, so why not use it to grow food?

Backyard Abundance planted the first edible landscape in 2011 beside the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center, and the program has since expanded to include a small herb garden by the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp and 1/3 of an acre at Wetherby Park. Part of the mission of these edible landscapes, Meyer says, is to demonstrate that “we can grow food in ways that make it available to anyone and everyone who’s willing to help cultivate it and then harvest it.”

Table to Table is a local nonprofit that runs a food rescue operation (FRO). Volunteers pick up food that is nearing expiration, but is still wholesome and edible, from grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, schools and hospitals, and then redistribute it to agencies that serve people in need. For instance, Red Lobster donates baked potatoes that haven’t sold within 20 minutes, as well as any food that hasn’t been sold for five days.

“We’re essentially taking something that has no marketable value, but we’re leveraging that value by distributing it at no charge to the agencies,” Table to Table Director Bob Andrlik said.

The organization began in 1996 as Iowa’s first FRO, and within the first year rescued about 40,000 pounds of food using volunteer vehicles. Today, with a fleet of five vans, 64 routes each week and 110 volunteers, the organization diverts more than one million pounds of food from the waste stream annually. Other than improving food access, Andrlik said there are other reasons for keeping food from going to waste, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the landfill. “And when you look at all the processing and transportation and packaging, it’s just crazy in my mind to throw those things away,” he said.

Another area organization, Local Foods Connection (LFC), serves the dual purpose of improving access to fresh and local sources of food while also supporting small farmers in the area. Despite being an agricultural hub, Iowa still imports an estimated 90 percent of its food. Currently, the organization serves about 50 low-income individuals and families by giving them vouchers at the local farmers’ markets or by enrolling them in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares. This is important because only a handful of farmers’ market vendors have digital card readers, preventing individuals who receive government assistance from using EBT cards, says LFC Assistant Director Cassidy Bell.

Susan Anderson has been a client of Local Foods Connection for a total of four years now, though not all consecutive. She said that if it weren’t for the program, she probably wouldn’t go to the farmers’ markets. Anderson recalled a recent field trip to Wilson’s Orchard that the organization arranged, where she got to walk through the farm and drink hot apple cider.

“It was such a great gift,” she said, because though she’d wanted to go for years, not having a car made the trip impossible. “There’s a real consciousness, concern and compassion here in Johnson County for those who need food.”

Local resource index

Crisis Center of Johnson County Food Bank

1121 S. Gilbert Ct. | 319-351-0140

The Crisis Center provides residents with essential groceries, such as canned foods, produce, bread and dairy products, as well as health and hygiene items. Residents can visit once a week.

UI Public Policy Center

310 S. Grand Ave. | 319-335-6800

The Center reviews and researches a variety of important issues and policies in Iowa and the nation. It provides policymakers and the community ways to develop sustainably through public engagement and education.

Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity

2401 Scott Blvd. | 319-337-8949

A nonprofit organization, Habitat for Humanity assists low-income families through various projects, including the construction of affordable homes of their own.

Backyard Abundance


Backyard Abundance, an environmental education nonprofit, builds landscapes that supply natural and healthy food and habitat to improve the health of the local environment.

Johnson County Social Services

855 S. Dubuque St. | 319-356-6090

This organization works mostly with families, youth and individuals in need, providing services such as child and adult protection, child-care assistance and resources for seniors.

Table to Table

20 E. Market St. | 319-337-3400

This food rescue nonprofit collects edible food donations from area restaurants, grocery stores, schools and hospitals, and distributes them to people in need.

Local Foods Connection


This nonprofit works to build a local, sustainable food system by connecting individual families and social service agencies with fresh produce and healthy food.

Shelter House

429 Southgate Ave. | 319-351-0326

Shelter House provides people experiencing homelessness in Iowa City with housing and other services, such as breakfasts and dinners, showers and laundry.



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