With an increase in food insecurity, providers need support

More information

Listen to a conversation about food insecurity with Jason Neises and Nikki Ketchum as part of the Community Foundation’s “Rethinking Rural” podcast. Visit dbqfoundation.org/rethinkingrural.

Nikki Ketchum has a long history of serving people considered “food insecure.”

As the meal coordinator at First Congregational Church UCC in Dubuque, she has seen a steady stream of regulars who she and her colleagues have been more than happy to support with healthy foods they might not otherwise be able to access.

Last year, though, Nikki noticed a change in her clientele.

“With the pandemic, so many people were out of work, and we saw faces we’d never seen before,” she says. “One thing that really struck our team was that we usually have volunteer groups who come in and help us serve meals — we started seeing some of those volunteers coming in with their families to be served.”

Ketchum’s experience serving the community during the past two years is, unfortunately, common among food providers. Since the pandemic began, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque has coordinated a network of organizations in Dubuque County to improve access to food. In our regular conversations, everyone has shared that they have seen an increasing number of clients and more new people accessing their services.

Prior to the pandemic, the organization Feed America reported that 8.4% of Dubuque County’s population was considered food insecure, which it defines as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” Feed America projected that percentage to climb to 11.2% post-pandemic.

The biggest challenge this issue poses is connecting with and serving the people who represent that increase. Newly food insecure people are navigating an unfamiliar system, and many don’t know where to start. Food providers and other social service agencies are working to identify people who need support, manage their cases and address the root causes of hunger.

At the Community Foundation, our challenge last year was to foster a more equitable food distribution system, one that people with many different experiences could rely on. Prior to the pandemic, meal providers and food pantries in the Dubuque region mostly worked independently of one another. That’s understandable — they operate on shoestring budgets with mostly volunteer staffs. Forming a network hasn’t always been within their capacity.

Our role was to bring them together to get them communicating with one another about the availability of different items, hours and days of operation, and other logistical concerns. For example, First Congregational offers personal hygiene items where other sites don’t. If a person visits another food pantry, those staff members can direct the client to First Congregational for hygiene items.

The new Feed Dubuque County Facebook page has become a gathering point for providers as well as people seeking meal assistance. Providers can post updates that individuals and families can reference as needed. As Ketchum said recently: “Now I feel like we’re all on the same page as far as being able to help the most people possible.”

Even with the Facebook page, reaching people who are new to Dubuque’s food distribution system continues to be a challenge. That’s because they come from many different backgrounds. Some are newcomers to our community who might have no network of contacts. Others might face language barriers. People who lost jobs and found themselves newly food insecure might not know how to navigate the system — or struggle with the stigma associated with food assistance.

For these reasons, it has been critical for our network to also work with organizations outside the food distribution system, such as schools and city government, to share information.

At this time of the year, pantries and meal distribution sites tend to see an even greater need, and they are grateful for all the help they can receive. While food drives are popular and pantries welcome drop-offs, providers stress the need for monetary gifts. Because of the low rates they pay for food, they can make a dollar go further than a person can at the grocery store.

Furthermore, providers are happy to have volunteers helping during this busy season and other times. You can connect with them through the Feed Dubuque County Facebook page at facebook.com/FeedDBQCo.

All help is appreciated and can make a significant difference, especially as the issue of food insecurity grows.