Michelle Book, Food Bank of Iowa president and CEO, poses with a seed sign for the farm of Willard Hostetler. Growing up on a nearby farm in Greene County, Book walked beans for Hostetler beginning when she was 11.

Jefferson native leading fight against food insecurity in Iowa

By SUSAN THOMPSON
For The Jefferson Herald

All across Iowa, farmers grow crops and animals that end up as food consumed by humans. Our state has often been described as “the land of plenty” for this very reason. And yet one in eight Iowans and one in five Iowa children are impacted by food insecurity.

Food insecurity means a lack of access to enough food to lead a healthy, active life.

There are more than 42 million people in the United States who struggle with hunger, including nearly 385,000 Iowans.

For the past two years, a native of Greene County has been working to reduce those numbers. Michelle Book is the president and CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa.

Book started her life on a farm near Dana in Greene County, and graduated from Jefferson High School. Her father, Marvin Book, still lives in Jefferson.

“I am a farmer at heart,” she says. “I walked beans for a local farmer from age 11 to the time I was 21. I spent my young adult years as a hog farmer in southwest Iowa, and nearly every job I’ve had has been closely tied to Iowa agriculture.”

Book earned a degree in business administration from Iowa State University, and went on to earn certified public accountant and certified internal auditor credentials. She worked as a CPA and controller, then jobs at MidAmerican Energy, John Deere Financial and Pioneer Hi-Bred before joining the Food Bank of Iowa.

“I spent 30 years working in corporate America, accountable to shareholders whom I had never met and would never meet,” Book says. “I wanted to do something for real people.

“At Pioneer Hi-Bred, my awareness of domestic and international food insecurity grew. When these two things came together, I realized that I could — and should — help address the problem here, in my own backyard.”

When she took the Food Bank position, she was surprised by food insecurity statistics.

“What surprised me is the same thing that surprises many others ... people who are food insecure are hard-working Iowans,” Book says. “The myth persists that people struggling with food insecurity are lazy and abuse the system. That’s not the reality. Most of the people we serve are employed, if they aren’t elderly, disabled or children. Many are working two or more minimum wage jobs, are working more than 40 hours a week, and yet they are struggling.”

Book says another eye-opener was how closely tied poverty and food insecurity are with our country’s obesity epidemic.

“The least expensive foods often are the least nutritious, and families who are struggling to stretch a dollar are more likely to purchase those foods than expensive fresh produce or lean meat,” she says. “This is one of the main reasons the Food Bank of Iowa has made a strategic shift toward distributing as much fresh produce, lean meat and other nutritious food as we can.”

One million pounds of food move through the Food Bank of Iowa warehouse in Des Moines each month. It collects, purchases, quality checks, stores and redistributes food to those in need directly or through smaller frontline agencies and partners.

Its service area covers 55 counties, and involves a network of more than 500 food distributors across 30,000 square miles.

Partners in Greene County include a school BackPack program, Genesis Development in Jefferson and two food pantries in Jefferson — the Greene County Christian Action Resource Center and the Dwelling Place.

“We continue our partnership with the Food Bank of Iowa where we receive all of our nonperishable items and can order these monthly,” said Angie Clouser, school community liaison, who assists with the Panorama School Food Pantry in neighboring Guthrie County. “We also receive some frozen and refrigerated items for distribution.”

Elementary school BackPack programs at Panorama, Guthrie Center and Stuart provide backpacks filled with nutritious food for children to take home on weekends.

“We are so appreciative of what the Food Bank of Iowa does for our Guthrie Center families in need through the BackPack program,” says Diane Flanery, Guthrie Center elementary principal. “The food sacks provide a good assortment of healthy supplementary food to help families get through the weekend.”

“The Food Bank of Iowa is wonderful to work with,” Flanery added. “They are accessible to answer any questions I have, and they deliver the sacks right to our building, making it really easy to participate in the program.”
Sarah Carstens helps with the BackPack program at Panorama.

“The BackPack program allows our students to gain the proper nutrition they need to learn,” she says. “It’s a struggle sometimes for students to come back after a weekend and focus on learning when they are hungry. They often rely on the school meals that are provided during the week, so the back packs help get them through the weekend.”

Carstens says the Food Bank of Iowa makes the program easy for the school to partner with.

“We receive a direct delivery every month of boxes that are pre-assembled with sacks of food,” she says. “We just open the sacks to add fresh fruit and then deliver them to classrooms for students to take home on Friday.”

Half of the food distributed by the Food Bank of Iowa is donated by retailers and food processors. Another 30 percent comes from the USDA commodity food program, and 20 percent is purchased using donated funds.

Book says the Food Bank of Iowa is just like any wholesaler.

“We look for food in large quantities, which is perfectly edible but not sellable for some reason. Every item is checked over, and then safely stored in our warehouse,” she says. “Our partners order from our online system. Our staff fills each order, preparing it for either pickup or delivery. The partner will receive their order, stock their shelves and then distribute that food to people in need.”

By operating this way, Book says the organization takes advantage of areas rich in food resources, like those near a major factory or with many retail stores, and makes those foods available to areas that lack those resources, such as small rural communities.

The operation currently employs 34 people, with seven of those operating a secondary distribution center in Ottumwa. Hundreds of volunteers also help, and last year provided more than 14,000 hours of volunteer time to the organization.

The Des Moines warehouse is undergoing renovation, which will wrap up this summer, to provide more storage for dry goods, refrigerated and frozen items.

“To fully serve the need, we must double our distribution,” Book says. “We have created a clean room that allows us to break down bulk products — giant totes of loose pasta, 50-pound bags of flour, cases of chicken nuggets — into smaller, family-size packaging. We’re eager to build on this new opportunity to help stock our partners’ shelves.”

Book says the greatest need is for products that are difficult for individuals to donate, such as fresh eggs and milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, and frozen lean meat.

“When we receive financial donations, we can purchase these products at great bulk prices. They’re the least often donated products, but they’re also the most nutritious and most important for our clients to receive,” she says.

Summer is the most difficult time of year to keep up with demand.

“Every June, thousands and thousands of Iowa children are released from school for the summer months. For many of them, school meals were their best, or only, source of food and nutrition. When these children have to go without school meals, we need to fill the gap, and this extra demand strains our resources,” Book says.

A program called “Field to Food Bank” encourages groups and individuals to raise and donate garden produce.

Book uses Tracy Blackmer as an example of how this program can make a difference.

“Tracy began growing fresh fruits and vegetables on land near Madrid to donate to the food pantry in Jefferson, where his mother volunteers. As his operation grew too large for the need in Jefferson, he began working with Food Bank of Iowa,” Book says. “Today, his program, Iowa Gardening for Good, provides tens of thousands of pounds of fresh, delicious, nutritious produce we distribute across many counties and to numerous food pantry partners.”

Book says Blackmer’s program is an ideal model for a Field to Food Bank effort.

“It’s local, brings volunteers into the system and provides large quantities of very high quality produce,” she says. “We would love to see his program exported to other farmers who want to get involved.”

Another strong Field to Food Bank program has been developed through Iowa’s correctional facilities. Now in multiple prisons, it began at the Newton Correctional Facility. At that site, they grow 12 acres of produce for their own kitchens, and 12 acres for the Food Bank of Iowa shelves.

“Each summer we receive hundreds of bins of potatoes, corn and other fresh produce, all grown by inmate volunteers,” Book says. “It’s a great program for us and our partners, and the inhabitant offenders are thrilled to help out. For some, the food goes to their hometown.”

Book says statewide groups that represent Iowa farmers — the Iowa Egg Council, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Midwest Dairy Association and others — also are good friends of Food Bank of Iowa.

“We are so grateful for their partnership in helping us connect with Iowa’s food producers,” she says.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources HUSH (Help Us Stop Hunger) program, which allows hunters to donate harvested deer for processing, is an excellent source of protein for the food bank.  

Book says there are many ways individuals and groups can help support the Food Bank of Iowa and the people it serves.

“Funds are really the best way to make a difference in the fight against food insecurity,” she says. “Because we buy our products in huge quantities — think a semi trailer rather than a grocery cart — we are able to get the absolute best price. We are also able to buy products that are hard to donate, like fresh milk and eggs.”

While funds are the best donation, Book says they also are happy to receive and distribute nonperishable grocery items. Some of the most needed items are proteins such as canned meat and fish; canned vegetables, fruit and soup; dry pasta; breakfast items, including cereal; 100-percent fruit juice; and paper and personal products, such as toothpaste, soap and toilet paper.

Items can be dropped at local food pantries or the Food Bank of Iowa at 2220 E. 17th St. in Des Moines.

To donate to Food Bank of Iowa, go online to www.foodbankiowa.org and click on Donate Money or Donate Food.

The website also provides information on volunteer opportunities, how to find local food pantries and ways to become a partner in the fight against food insecurity.

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