Crisis Center sets record in food bank visits

By Pat Shaver

IOWA CITY— The Crisis Center of Johnson County staff was surprised to see its food bank break all-time records for number of visits in a month.

In July, the Crisis Center Food Bank reached record numbers for food distributions in one month. The Food Bank was visited more than 4,400 times throughout the month for food, showing an increasing need for food and donations throughout the county.

According to Feeding America, about 12.9 percent of the population in Iowa is considered food-insecure people. The food insecurity rate in Johnson County is above the state average at 14.3 percent. That amounts to about 18,480 people in Johnson County.

The high demand for food shows the need for Thanksgiving in July, a community-wide food drive benefiting several local pantries. The drive helps to keep the Crisis Center’s food bank shelves stocked throughout the summer when donations typically decrease.

The Crisis Center set a goal to raise 90,000 pounds of food for the July drive, which in previous years would have been enough to stock shelves until the start of the school year. However, in the month of July alone, the Crisis Center distributed more than 100,000 pounds of food. The food and financial contributions from Thanksgiving in July continue to come in. Food donations from the community are gone almost as quickly as they are received.

Sarah Benson Witry, food bank and emergency assistance director at the Crisis Center of Johnson County, said they can point to several reasons for gradual increases in visits over the last few years, but the recent spike is still a bit of a mystery.

“You can really see the economic factors, with the recession, shows the impact on Johnson County,” Ms. Benson Witry said. “And post-flood there was an increase.”

“We’re still seeing a lot of places downsize,” she said. People may go from a full-time job with benefits to a part-time position. “The last few years they had a full-time job and were making it. Now, their wage is not as substantial and they are struggling to fill the gap.”

Crisis Center staff is still collecting data and surveying clients to get a better answer for the spike in visits, she said.

“Also, something to look at is the impacts of the (federal) sequester. It could be that there is some impact here,” Ms. Benson Witry said. “But we still need to look further into this.”

In the past, on average, a household would visit the food bank seven times in a year. This year, each household visits the Crisis Center food bank an average of 10 times.

“Over the past few years, the donations have increased as the need increases. It’s a very giving community and we are absolutely dependent on the help we get from the community,” she said.

A $1 donation is equal to 4 pounds of food, Ms. Benson Witry noted.

Donors interested in competing for a Thanksgiving in July Turkey Trophy can still submit their participation form with their donation throughout August. Food and financial donations can be taken to the Crisis Center at 1121 Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Financial donations can also be made at

Other programs

The Crisis Center has been serving residents of Johnson County since 1970. In addition to food pantry services, the organization offers crisis intervention counseling, suicide prevention and intervention, supplemental food services, emergency financial assistance, disaster recovery and other community programs.

One of the programs that is seeing increased donations and requests is the emergency financial assistance program. People can register for assistance of up to $100 for help with major basic bills such as rent, utilities and water.

“The financial assistance is something we get more requests than we are able to fulfill,” Ms. Benson Witry said.

The program is set up similar to a lottery, where people can enter their name in, but aren’t guaranteed assistance because of limited funding.

A new service the Crisis Center is offering is online crisis intervention counseling through instant message in Mandarin.

“Mandarin is the most common language spoken by University of Iowa international students,” Ms. Benson Witry said.

The Crisis Center employs 11 people and has a pool of about 200-250 volunteers.

For more information on volunteering and donation, visit the Crisis Center’s website at

The 1105 Project

The Crisis Center, along with the Free Lunch Program, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Johnson County are partnering on the 1105 Project. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors sold a building near the Crisis Center to the group of nonprofits for $1.

“The whole point of nonprofits in the area is to serve people in need, we all have the same mission,” Ms. Benson Witry said.

They are collaborating to use the space to accommodate for each organization’s space needs.

“We all came together, each having space needs. It just made sense to not go it alone,” she said.

The plan is to have the building operating in December, said Harmony Hauser, Crisis Center communications coordinator. The facility will allow for more meeting space, additional parking and other uses.

“This will allow us all to be stronger together,” Ms. Hauser said.


Crisis Center of Johnson County Food Bank needs:

  1. Financial contributions
  2. Canned fruit and juice
  3. Canned meat and peanut butter
  4. Hearty soups and stews
  5. Canned vegetables
  6. Toilet paper
  7. Baby formula
  8. Baby diapers (size 3 and up)
  9. Laundry detergent
  10. Pasta and rice