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Food assistance could be hurt by shutdown

PHOTO COURTESY OF WERNER ELMKER

The Iowa Department of Human Service announced Wednesday that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for February will be dispensed today.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WERNER ELMKER The Iowa Department of Human Service announced Wednesday that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for February will be dispensed today.
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The Lord’s Cupboard in Fairfield is making plans for the possibility that federal food assistance ends because of the government shutdown.

The federal government shut down Dec. 22 due to the failure of the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump to agree on an appropriations bill for the 2019 fiscal year. Since then, about 800,000 federal workers have either been asked to go home or are working without pay.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, could be affected if the shutdown lingers for another month or more.

The Iowa Department of Human Service announced Wednesday that SNAP benefits for February will be dispensed to Iowans today, earlier than expected. More than 335,000 Iowans rely on SNAP — known as Food Assistance in Iowa — totaling up to $37 million in benefits, according to Iowa Department of Human Services data.

“We at The Lord’s Cupboard haven’t been affected yet [by the shutdown], but a lot of our clients are also on SNAP,” said Lord’s Cupboard director Laura Cohen. “The SNAP program is only funded through February. If the shutdown goes on much longer, we could see a big effect on people because after they get their February allotment of food stamps, they will get nothing else.”

The Lord’s Cupboard has a board meeting next week. At the meeting, Cohen wants the board to discuss giving clients an additional full food order if the shutdown continues for months.

Other programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, will be funded through February as well. WIC served more than 59,000 Iowans in November 2018, according to state data.

How to receive food orders

To get food through The Lord’s Cupboard, clients must sign an application stating their income is under the guidelines established by The Emergency Food Assistance Program (known by its acronym, TEFAP), a federal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. They must prove they live in Jefferson County and bring a photo ID.

Those who qualify receive four full food orders per year. A full food order includes a variety of canned goods, dry goods, soaps, personal hygiene items, paper products, meat, eggs and milk. It’s intended to last a family seven days. Cohen noted that the amount of food clients receive is greater than last year, when a full food order lasted three to five days.

In addition to receiving four full food orders per year, clients can receive one bread and protein order per week. The protein available depends on the food that has been donated to the pantry. Sometimes it is meat, sometimes it is eggs, and other times it’s beans or soup. A new service this year is a weekly order of milk.

How has The Lord’s Cupboard been able to expand its services? Cohen said it’s from a confluence of good fortune.

“The building we’re in didn’t cost as much as we expected, so we didn’t have to dip into our savings like we thought we would,” she said. “On top of that, our savings were in an investment account, and those investments have done very well. And the people in Jefferson County have been generous toward us. People like to feed each other. When we found we had such great savings, we wanted to reinvest that in the community by offering more.”

Cohen said the organization typically prepares 125-150 full food orders per month, and another 350 orders of bread and protein.

The Lord’s Cupboard is open 1-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. It can be reached at 472-8457.

Cohen wishes to clear up some misconceptions about the food pantry. She often hears from people who believe it is state funded. It receives about $2,000 annually from the USDA, but apart from that it is privately funded.

Contingency plans

Iowa DHS officials are developing contingency plans for the month of March, should the government shutdown continue. Officials with the department declined to comment further on the contingency plans or what they could entail.

“At the Iowa Department of Human Services, we understand the importance of ensuring food security for Iowans in need and will do everything we can to ensure there is as little disruption as possible,” Director Jerry Foxhoven said in a statement.

However, DHS officials are encouraging recipients to “to budget their normal benefits to ensure they last through the month of February.”

In an interview with the Gazette-Lee Des Moines bureau last week, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said, “I can’t imagine we wouldn’t assure Iowans that we’ll make sure that they can put food on the table if things in [Washington] D.C. are still going horribly wrong. Iowans deserve to know that they’ll be able to feed their families.”

The Hiawatha-based Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) — which distributes six million pounds of food annually to 132 not-for-profits and other agencies in Eastern Iowa — also expects their supplies to last through February, Guardado said.

But she noted HACAP officials are hoping for a resolution soon as their inventory — as with the food stamp dollars — eventually will run out.

In September, the USDA announced a new bailout program for farmers affected by the trade disputes between the United States and other countries. Under the Trade Mitigation Programs, the USDA began purchasing $1.2 billion worth of product from farmers and distributing it to food banks across the country.

HACAP

The HACAP Food Reservoir was a beneficiary of that federal program. It’s expected to receive more than 1.5 million pounds of food over the life of the program to distribute to its clients in a seven-county area.

Items began arriving last week. So far, Guardado said HACAP has received apples and navy beans from the program. They also expect to receive grapes, pork, potatoes, oranges and more.

HACAP will continue receiving products that were purchased before the government shut down Dec. 22, a supply that is expected to last until March.

Food pantries in Cedar Rapids also have not noticed any changes with their client base.

“We have not seen any major upturn in need at the moment,” said Shalla Ashworth, director of development and communications at the Salvation Army, an organization that offers food pantry services at its northwest neighborhood location in Cedar Rapids.

Salvation Army stafff have not had any discussions about a continued shutdown, noting it’s still too early to tell how it could affect their clients, Ashworth said.

“It’s a waiting game,” Ashworth said. “People are waiting to see what’s going to happen and how long their supplies at home may go. If we’re still sitting in this situation in three weeks, it’ll be a different picture.”

If inventory from the federal Trade Mitigation Programs runs out, HACAP will be unable to make a difference.

“We would not have the budget for that,” Guardado said. “It would a financial hardship for our agency.”

In that case, Guardado and Ashworth of the Salvation Army said their organizations would turn to the community for support.

“It could have severe effect, but I’m hopeful there will be a resolution before that,” Guardado said.