Brian Barks with Food Bank for the Heartland says “we’ve known for a long time we have a food insecurity problem in our communities.”

“In our state(s), in our nation,” said Barks, the nonprofit organization’s president and CEO, at a drive-thru mobile pantry at Lewis Central High School and Middle School Wednesday.

The coronavirus epidemic “is exposing that problem. And unfortunately, it’s also exacerbating that problem.”

On Wednesday, volunteers and staff distributed the boxes of food in about 30 minutes. About 240 families stopped by. For those that didn’t receive supplies, staff handed out information on the location of other pantries and information on further assistance. The organization started its modified drive-up program last week, including a distribution at Wilson Middle School that saw 400 people stop by, though the organization only had enough supplies for 200.

At L.C., the food bank doled out 28-pound boxes with pantry items — shelf-stable foods like canned vegetables and fruits, pasta and sauce, peanut butter and more, Barks said — along with fresh produce.

“This is something we do as a food bank year round,” Barks said of the event, noting the distribution model has changed because of COVID-19, with the pre-made packages instead of allowing attendees to choose what they want. “We did all this to reduce person-to-person contact.”

The food bank does about 35 to 40 mobile pantries in western Iowa and Nebraska each month. With COVID-19 leading to additional joblessness, demand has increased.

“As businesses start shutting down, laying people off, we’re getting people who’ve never, ever had to seek food assistance before,” Barks said.

That’s put a strain on the food bank and its roughly 600 partners — food pantries, emergency shelters, after-school programs, schools and other organizations.

“People are making a rush to those places to seek food assistance. There’s only so much product we’re able to provide,” Barks said.

Additionally, with the run on supermarkets and grocery stores during the pandemic, donations by businesses to the Food Bank for the Heartland have dipped. Traditionally, the food bank receives about 50% of its products from grocery stores and wholesalers, “but the stores don’t have the extra to give,” Barks said.

“When you see the grocery store shelves that are empty, imagine the pressure it puts on the food banks,” he said.

The food bank typically spends about $60,000 or less monthly on food for distribution. This month that number is north of $300,000.

“I’m afraid that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Barks said.

Barks said the need for support, specifically cash donations, is heightened. To donate go to foodbankheartland.org.

The food bank has 55 employees, many working remote. The organization relies on a sizable number of volunteers as well. Barks thanked Lewis Central volunteers for “always doing a great job.”

“We’re here to try to do the very best we can to get food in the hands of people that need it,” Barks said.

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