Time for Dinner: Food Insecurity in our Community – Part 1

“Moooommmmmmmm, I’m hungry!”

“Mom, there is nothing to eat!”

“I have GOT to go to the store today. We have nothing to eat in this house.”

“I haven’t cooked a decent meal in a week.”

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want"
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want”

I would guess that at one time or another we have all heard, or said, similar pronouncements in our household. They are the common laments of our busy routines full of active kids and overstretched schedules. Let’s be honest, though; it is mostly just lip service. At the end of the day, we know that if we had to, we could scrounge up an omelet and toast or some buttered noodles with a can of peas. We could make a grilled cheese sandwich for the little ones, heat up a can of tomato soup, and then go browse Pinterest for better dinner ideas for tomorrow. But what if I told you that 1 in 4 children in Eastern Iowa go to bed hungry every night? Would you believe it? Would you believe that in the United States two-thirds of hungry families with children have at least one full-time working parent?

FA_Logo_400x400The statistics are accurate according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks that feed more than 46 million people through privately run programs like food pantries and congregate meal programs. Thirty years ago, there were a few hundred emergency food programs across the country; today there are over 50,000.

You still may be skeptical. I mean, you see your “mommy friends” and the parents at your kids’ school, and you would never guess that those families might be what the USDA now refers to as “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have enough money for food for an active and healthy life. However, you should know that many myths exist about the nature of domestic hunger and the people who struggle to get enough to eat. The “face of hunger” has changed and is hidden in plain sight. Hunger affects people you see every day—the assistant at your son’s daycare, your co-worker, a child in your daughter’s class, the mom you chat with at the park. Many people live one paycheck away from financial disaster. An unexpected illness, injury, car repair, layoff or life change can put a self-sufficient person at risk of hunger.

images-4 We are witnessing hunger in our own community and we don’t even realize it. Depressingly, households with children have a greater likelihood of struggling to keep adequate food on the table than the national average, and single moms are more likely to face food insecurity than all other households. Simply put, we don’t really know what is behind our neighbor’s refrigerator door.  Somewhere tonight a mom is using macaroni-and-cheese mixes and other cheap processed ingredients, not because she is tired and busy and has to get the kids to dance practice, but because it is literally the only thing she has to feed her kids. And of course, she won’t eat until she is sure her family is fed. And what about those fresh fruits and vegetables we are always trying to incorporate into our family’s diet and urging our kids to eat? Those to many are a luxury and are only eaten in the first days after a SNAP payment arrives (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Mothers may even be taking home food from work and skipping meals to make food stretch.

Their health is suffering for it too. Hunger and obesity live in close quarters. Their existence sounds contradictory, but those with insufficient resources to purchase adequate food can still be overweight, for reasons that researchers now are beginning to understand and which we will explore in future blog posts.

Free and reduced lunch program enrollment is higher than ever.
Free and reduced lunch program enrollment is higher than ever.

But the most detrimental risk falls to our children. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is open to all children enrolled in a participating school. Approximately 95 percent of public schools participate. During the 2012-13 school year, 30.7 million children in more than 98,000 schools and childcare facilities in the US participated in the NSLP. On a typical school day, 70.5 percent were receiving free or reduced price lunches.

In Linn and Johnson Counties, over 1,600 students are enrolled in a program called “Operation BackPack.” This program works with the public schools to identify children with hunger issues, and then provides nutritious food in backpacks to go home with the children on weekends and during school breaks.

Operation BackPack
Operation BackPack

Because most of the meals food insecure children eat are at school, when the weekend arrives they go hungry. Teachers and administrators, to protect the privacy of the children, discreetly place the food in the child’s backpack. When a child is hungry it affects their physical, emotional, and academic development. A hungry child can also have more behavioral problems than a child who receives adequate nutrition.

These are all startling facts. Some of you reading may be learning this for the first time. Others may be aware but didn’t realize how prevalent it was in our own back yard. Still others may be living this reality now. But here is the good news. Through a series of blog posts and the collective efforts of the Iowa City Mom’s Blog community, we are going to explore ways that the most hardworking, compassionate, determined, creative and entrepreneurial group of people (moms, of course) can make their mark on hunger.  It’s time for dinner. Everyone’s invited. I hope you join us.


My daughters raising money for the Eastern Iowa Freedom From Hunger food drive (2014)
My daughters raising money for the Eastern Iowa Freedom From Hunger food drive (2014)


Anissa moved to Johnston in 2016 after living in Iowa City for more than 20 years. She has two girls, Faith (16) and Fiona (10). She and her husband, Patrick, have been married for 21 years. Anissa is a registered dietitian and works for Sanford Health. For fun she loves to clean, organize, read, and binge watch Netflix. Her vices include watching the “Real Housewives” franchises and doughnuts!


  1. Thank you for posting this! Operation Backpack is a wonderful program. I recently helped one of the community partners with some of the deliveries and I was so impressed with the simplicity of the idea and the immediate and direct impact to kids in our community.

    • Katie,

      Thank you for helping with Operation BackPack. It is such an important program and it completely runs on volunteers like you. In the past few years we have grown from 55 students to 1900! You are doing great work.

  2. Thank you for posting this, and raising awareness. I look forward to learning more about how to serve families in our community! I would love to participate in operation backpack.

    • Ann,

      Operation BackPack is an amazing program. It is so simple yet so effective. For more information as to how to get involved log on to http://www.HACAP.org. There is a volunteer information section. We currently feed 1900 children and could easily feed more if we had the capacity.

  3. Thank you for posting this and spreading the word about hunger in our communities! I volunteer with the Crisis Center of Johnson County’s food bank and am very interested in helping to ensure families and chidden have enough to eat.

  4. Terri,

    The Crises Center is one of the HACAP Food Reservoir’s (where I am the director) partner agencies. They do amazing work. Johnson County had the highest food insecurity rate in our 7 county service area. Thank you for helping these families.


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