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WATCH NOW: Reynolds, Gregg tour Northeast Iowa Food Bank

WATCH NOW: Reynolds, Gregg tour Northeast Iowa Food Bank

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WATERLOO — The director of the largest food bank in Northeast Iowa praised the governor and lieutenant governor during a visit Tuesday, saying they’ve been helpful in securing funds for food banks, though a proposed sales tax exemption is still on her wish list.

Barb Prather, executive director of the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, said Gov. Kim Reynolds and particularly Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who leads the Feeding Iowans Task Force, have brought a greater awareness of growing food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic recession.

“Gov. Reynolds has had to balance so many different issues during the pandemic, and one of the things that she’s really prioritized is food insecurity,” Gregg said, noting Reynolds had used “significant” federal CARES Act funding for food banks. “The partnership with Northeast Iowa Food Bank and the Iowa Food Bank Association has made a big difference.”

Reynolds and Gregg were joined by Iowa Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, a Democrat who serves southeastern Black Hawk County and who also serves on the NEIFB board, and state Rep. Sandy Salmon, a Republican who serves Bremer County and northern Black Hawk County, to tour the facility. All wore masks.

Reynolds and Gregg then helped pack food, with Reynolds scooping rolled oats into plastic bags as part of a bulk repackaging project.

Gregg noted programs like the $3.5 million Pass the Pork initiative, which helped NEIFB distribute around 8,000 pounds of pork caught up in meatpacking back-ups, and partnership with AmeriCorps to repack bulk food purchases, have been “creative” ways to solve multiple problems at once.

“Not many states have done that or been that forward-thinking, and we know that it helped us make sure that we’re able to feed Iowans during this very trying time,” he said.

The number of families using the food bank is around 20% to 25% greater this year than last, Prather said. For rural pantries the NEIFB serves, the need was as much as 45% bigger. Her organization saw demand jump from 4 million meals annually to about 10 million.

While the food bank serves pantries, organizations and nonprofits across Northeast Iowa, it also runs its own pantry for Black Hawk County. Since coronavirus restrictions, demand jumped from 3,000 households per month to 3,800, all curbside pickup. Mobile food pantries have increased from 13 to 17.

“Not a good thing,” Prather told the governor and lieutenant governor. “But we’re here to meet that need.”

One good change over the years: NEIFB has gone from less than 10% fresh food to nearly 70%, Prather said.

“Which is often the most nutritious and what clients want,” she said.

Prather is disappointed a sales tax exemption for food banks — which could save Iowa’s six food banks around $200,000 annually — didn’t pass the Legislature. Salmon said the Legislature “just about had it, and we lost it.”

“Right at the very end,” Reynolds replied. “It’ll come back.”

“I’ll hold you to task on that,” Prather said, elbow-bumping Reynolds.

She could feed a lot more families with an extra $200,000, she said.

“It really will help us provide more food to families in the long term,” she said.

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