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Iowa food pantries assist schools facing food insecurity

IOWA CITY — Recently launched food pantries in Iowa City are filling a need for people who face food insecurity in several new locations this year, including schools.

A pantry started at Tate High in October has served nearly two-thirds of students since opening, while City High students started pantries on its campus and outside First United Methodist Church. A mobile pantry traveling between two mobile home parks and a church in Iowa City is also building a client base, and a University of Iowa pantry is tackling food insecurity on campus.

The new pantries come at a time when the area’s food banks have seen slightly more visitors. Sarah Benson Witry, assistant director of the Johnson County Crisis Center’s food bank, said the center’s food banks have seen a small visitor uptick recently — 240 more visits this fiscal year so far, compared with last year — an increase of less than 1 percent. For October through February, the increase over last year was 2.4 percent.

Benson Witry said the center’s mobile pantry is drawing some of the new visits, but the uptick also indicates the demand for food banks is increasing.

As school let out Friday, students lined up in Tate’s cafeteria to peruse fresh fruit, milk and other food and hygiene items.

Among roughly 150 students at Tate, the Iowa City Community School District’s alternative high school, about 100 have visited the pantry at least once, Benson Witry said. The Crisis Center co-facilitates Tate’s pantry along with Trinity Episcopal Church. She said this rate of visitors at Tate is “well above what we expected.”

Nearly 70 percent of Tate students were approved for free or reduced-price lunches this school year, compared with 37.3 percent across the district. The Johnson County Hunger Task Force chose Tate for the pantry because this data illustrated a need, Benson Witry said.

“It’s been really nice to be able to respond to the needs of those students,” she said.

Amber Herring, the student and family advocate at Tate, said the pantry has seen more than 1,000 visits, and roughly 15 to 20 students stop by daily.

“It’s definitely benefiting our students,” she said.

Tate Principal Ann Browning said the school began working with Trinity Episcopal early this school year to address food insecurity issues, and the Crisis Center’s contribution complements this work.

Jovana Rodriquez, 16, a junior at Tate, said many students struggle with transportation. The campus pantry is more accessible to them than traditional food banks, which means they’re more likely to visit. She said the pantry provides items that meet students’ needs and students face little stigma for visiting at school.

“You can just go in there and get whatever you need, and I think it’s very useful for kids and families who don’t have much at home,” she said.

She said she hopes the initiative expands to other schools because “we don’t know whose struggling and who isn’t.”

Benson Witry said the Crisis Center is considering similar partnerships with other secondary schools in Johnson County.

Jack Ballard, a senior at City High and aspiring Eagle Scout, spearheaded an alternative pantry model this year — a “little free pantry” outside First United Methodist, 214 E. Jefferson St.

Ballard, 18, worked with about two dozen Boy Scout troop members to build the pantry as his Eagle Scout service project, and he launched the initiative late last month. The 24-hour pantry, similar to a little free library, allows visitors to “leave what you can and take what you need,” he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of new stuff that’s been dropped off,” Ballard said.

He said he hopes the “little free pantry” idea will catch on across Iowa, and he is spreading the word by mailing letters to contacts statewide.

Lucy Wagner, City High’s student body president, started City’s campus pantry last fall based on the University of Iowa’s similar initiative. She said the project is going well, although she is trying to encourage more students to visit.

“I think a lot of kids are intimidated to come in,” Wagner said, adding she hopes to break down barriers by building trust with her peers.

The pantry, which offers food, winter clothing and other items, is open before and after school to all students, including those who want a healthier alternative to vending machine fare during extra-curricular activities, she said. Some teachers also take student groups to visit during the school day.

Wagner, a senior, said she launched the pantry using roughly $900 from T-shirt sales and earned a grant through the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum that will provide an additional $250.

Before launching, Wagner conducted a survey of students to see what resources they needed most — water, soap, coats and gloves made the top of the list.

“I think that it’s definitely been a humbling experience,” Wagner said.

The Crisis Center’s mobile food bank began serving Parkview Church, along with Cole’s and Breckenridge Estates mobile home courts, last October, with monthly visits at each location.

Since it launched, the initiative has seen an average of 50 visitors each month, with the highest visitor counts in October and February, according to data from the Crisis Center.

“The message I get from the data is that people struggled to come out in the cold, but as word spreads about the mobile pantries, and as the weather improves, we will see more visitors to each site,” Benson Witry said.

After a survey of university students indicated food insecurity is also a problem on the UI campus, a new student organization sought to fill the need starting last August, said Sydney Hofferber, the initiative’s volunteer coordinator.

Hofferber, 21, a senior, said the pantry’s client base is growing as word spreads about the resource, in Room 209 at the Iowa Memorial Union. She said the pantry is relieving stress for students.

The pantry has a total of 151 registered clients, according to data Hofferber provided. It has drawn 524 visits since opening, including 142 visits in February.

A National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness study last year indicated nearly half of responding college and university students reported experiencing food insecurity.

Hofferber said the local survey on campus revealed students were facing tough choices between paying for education expenses or adequate food.

“We just want to make sure we’re here for the community,” she said.

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