Suburban Des Moines Food Pantries Grow as Families Struggle
Three years into a recession, demand is growing for food pantries in Urbandale and other Des Moines suburbs.
Hunger often is harder to spot in the suburbs, but those who feed the needy say it's here and it's growing.
Consider this anecdote from Urbandale Food Pantry Director Eileen Boggess, who last spring attended an assembly at Webster Elementary, the suburb's wealthiest elementary school, which had just completed a food drive.
"A mom next to me said that it was so sweet that their kids were giving to the poor since all the kids at their school had so much to give. Later that evening at the food pantry, a girl came in with her mom to get food and she pointed excitedly at the bags lined up and said: "Those are from our school!"
"Our clients are our neighbors," said Boggess, 43, a former parochial school teacher and writer who feels she was spiritually led to shepherd the Urbandale Food Pantry from its inception in 2008.
"It's just neighbors helping neighbors. That's our philosophy."
One recent fall afternoon, people were milling around the Urbandale food pantry, which is nestled in the Cedar Ridge shopping center. They were there to pick up their monthly bag of food. (The pantry only supplements a family's food budget, it does not replace it, so families receive just five days worth of foods such as canned goods, cereal, rice, beans, dry or shelf-stable milk.)
While they waited, some picked up some leftover breads donated by Panera Bread. Others chose from fresh fruits and vegetables donated by grocery stores or community gardens.
A few were there for a free flu shot being provided by the Polk County Health Department. Many said they were laid off or lost their jobs and haven't been able to get new jobs.
If you would like to help, click on the links of the food bank websites below.
Barry Andrews, 60, of Windsor Heights, a Vietnam veteran who had to stop working in construction for health reasons, was at the pantry for the second time. He said he understands people's embarrassment about needing to ask for food.
"Sometimes a person's pride gets in their way. Even though I'm a proud man, I have no objections to admitting that, at that time, I could use the help," he said. "It kind of chokes you up. I hope nobody sees me or nobody recognizes me. It kind of embarrasses you, but it shouldn't...I've had nothing but a good experience here."
Pantry Idea Begins With Church Survey
The idea of an Urbandale food pantry started with a survey at St. Pius X Catholic Church. Even before the recession hit in October 2008: parishioners overwhelmingly said the communities' most important need was a food pantry.
Boggess recalls that most initial reactions to the idea were: "There's no need for a food pantry in Urbandale," a suburb of nearly 40,000 that routinely makes Money Magazine's annual list of Best Places to Live.
But by the end of the Urbandale Pantry's first month of operation - September of 2008 - it had served 96 families.
Three years later, the pantry's business has tripled; 286 families used it this last September.
"We haven't gone below 250 families a month since the 2009 holiday season," said Boggess.
"When we first opened it was a lot of elderly and immigrant families and now it's all across the board," she said. Very often, you can't tell the clients from the volunteers in the pantry, she said. "It's just neighbors helping neighbors. That's our philosophy."
Urbandale Need is Not Unique
Urbandale is a microcosm for a phenomenon that is being borne out regionally and nationally.
"I know for a fact that we've seen poverty and hunger moving into the suburbs," said Elisabeth Ballstadt, director for Des Moines Area Religious Council's food pantry network. "The numbers (of customers) in the inner city or more urban areas are staying consistent, but they're growing in the suburbs," she said.
"Urbandale's had 80 percent increase in usage, which is insane," she said.
Some of that could be that the Urbandale pantry is new and fills a void, but DMARC Executive Director Sarai Rice, notes that the established West Des Moines pantry also saw more families. It served 956 people in September 2009 and 1,078 the same month this year.
Ankeny and a new food pantry in Johnston's also feed a growing number of families, said Rice.
Need is growing, not easing
Rice said the need is outgrowing central Iowal food banks' resources. Her group has seen 7 percent increase in clients. Despite the generosity of churches and individuals, DMARC is struggling to meet that growing need.
Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity, said its nationwide network of food banks is feeding one million more Americans each week than it did in 2006.
And 36 percent of the households using its emergency food pantries have at least one person who is employed.
Boggess said she doesn't see hunger or need easing in Urbandale.
"I think it's going to get worse, especially if we go to a second recession," she said. "People can hold on for about three years if they lose their job, but then they run out of money."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.