Iowa food banks in ‘dire situation,’ anticipate more strain if governor signs restrictions on SNAP benefits

Perishable and non-perishable foods line the shelves at the newly Coralville Community Food Pantry building on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. – Sid Peterson/Little Village

Food banks across the state continue to struggle to meet the needs of their communities as food insecurity rises in Iowa. On Tuesday morning, CommUnity Crisis Services in Iowa City sent out a news release to let the public know the strain its food bank is under.

The food bank, which expanded in 2020 and relocated to Pepperwood Plaza, will set a new record this year for the amount of food distributed. It is currently serving about 200 households and distributing approximately 6,000 pounds of food on a daily basis. At the same time, “in-kind donations of food products are down 43 percent compared to last year,” according to CommUnity.

The nonprofit is also seeing the buying power of the financial donations it receives from supporters shrink as inflated food prices remain stubbornly high.

But the need for food bank services like CommUnity’s continue to grow.

“Many local families are not eligible for other assistance programs, and the Food Bank is their only source of groceries each week,” Sarah Nelson, CommUnity’s CEO, said in the news release. “But what we’re currently able to provide is just not enough. They need more food per visit than we’re able to give, and without help, the situation is only going to get worse.”

Empty shelves in CommUnity’s Food Bank — courtesy of CommUnity

Of course it’s not just in Iowa City that food banks are facing an tremendous increase in demand.

“In February 2023, we served 1,480 families compared to 800 served in February 2022,” Patty Sneddon-Kisting, executive director of the Urbandale Food Pantry, told the Washington Post last month.

A bill sitting on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk would make the problem of food insecurity in Iowa exponentially worse, if the governor signs it into law as she is expected to do.

SF 494 would impose a new asset test on households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) benefits and other forms of public assistance. Any household with more than $15,000 in assets would become ineligible for SNAP benefits to help with food cost. That amount does not include the value of a home, one car of any value and a second car worth up to $10,000.” As the Post noted, “it does include things like a child’s savings account or a work vehicle like a tractor or a truck.”

The bill would also hire a company to conduct rigorous checks to determine whether current SNAP beneficiaries and future applicants meet the new eligibility requirements. An analysis of SF 484 by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) estimates that hiring of the private contractor to screen SNAP recipients and other changes required by the bill will cost Iowa $17 million during the first three years. Currently, the state spends $2.2 million to administer SNAP.

Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature have said the new restrictions and enforcement procedures are necessary to stop SNAP fraud. Around the country, fraud in the SNAP program is very low. LSA estimates that Iowa’s SNAP program has a fraud rate of 0.07 percent.

LSA also estimates that SF 484 will cause 2,800 households to lose SNAP benefits “due to discrepancies” (the bill does not require any fraudulent intent to disqualify a household). The bill will also result in 8,000 Medicaid recipients and 600 children covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program to lose the support they receive through those programs.

SF 484 passed the Iowa Senate and House with just Republican support. In the House, five Republicans joined all the chamber’s Democrats in voting against it.

A coalition of anti-hunger groups from around the state has urged Gov. Reynolds to veto SF 484, as have more than 200 religious leaders. The governor has not publicly commented on whether she will sign it, but given her previous actions to cut social safety net programs, like unemployment benefits, it is difficult to believe she won’t.

In its news release, CommUnity said, “Changes to SNAP legislation on the horizon will make fewer Iowans eligible to receive assistance at the grocery store, and they will be left to rely more heavily, if not completely, on the Food Bank to feed their families.”

Information on ways to support CommUnity’s food bank can be found on its website.