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Iowa's new hungry reality

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -  Iowa is a state that helps feed the world, but thousands of Iowans are struggling to put food on their own table.

In 10 years, the number of Iowans receiving food assistance through SNAP has doubled. The price tag for the program, once known as Food Stamps, is almost $3 million in Linn County alone.

The biggest problem is demand with many people in need, but fraud is also a concern.

Surveillance video released by law enforcement shows Billy Evans shopping for opportunity, and to rip off taxpayers, at a Dubuque convenience store in January 2014. In the video, you see Evans lift his jacket to show a woman that he's got a gun. He wanted a woman to use his EBT card to pay for her food and then give him the cash she would've spent herself.

Once he left the store, she called 911 and he was arrested. Evans is now serving five years in prison.

Selling credits for cash is not new, but the government is cracking down on fraud. In 2012, 42,000 people were kicked out of the SNAP program in the U.S.

Crooks are always looking for new ways to twist the system. Water dumping is another kind of fraud. Someone will buy a beverage with their benefits, dump it out and then return it to cash in on the deposit.

Typically, though, it takes two to tango -- someone who's willing to exchange their benefits for illegal products or cash and a retailer that's complicit. KWWL obtained documents from the federal government that shows the eastern Iowa retailers that have been booted from the SNAP program since 2010, a penalty that generally happens when a business is caught trafficking benefits. 

Three retailers from Waterloo, two from Dubuque and one from Postville are on that list. (One retailer from Waterloo on the list has been reinstated under new ownership.)

KWWL contacted each retailer to ask them what they did to be disqualified, but most of their phone numbers had been disconnected.

Each day in Iowa, thousands of people play by the rules and use SNAP to put healthy food on the table. The government says 99% of SNAP participants are eligible and the accuracy of payments is at 96.5%, which is considered to be the highest it's ever been.

SNAP is the most visible program like it, but there are other doors opening in eastern Iowa.

Like Santa's elves, volunteers are working together to create a Christmas for kitchen cupboards every month. In Cedar Rapids, Kenwood Park United Methodist Church is a host site for SHARE. "I think the people who would benefit the most, don't know," said Michele Gilliam, a volunteer.

SHARE is self funded, contracting with food buyers around the country. Food is then distributed at various sites across eastern Iowa once a month to participants, who can save up to half off their grocery bill. "Because it said, 'Share,' people thought it was for poor people, but all of us like a bargain." So much so, Gilliam isn't just a volunteer, she's also a participant.

Anyone can order, so what's the catch? SHARE only asks that you pay it forward, by volunteering to help someone else two hours a month.

In one Waterloo classroom, they're selling the sizzle and the stake, a stake in the community. Cinda Tenorio and Nicole Myles are kitchen coaches at the ISU Extension and Outreach office in Waterloo. They teach people how to buy, eat and live healthy.

"They're not getting enough fruits and vegetables, they're not getting enough grains, so until they actually see it in writing, they're like, 'Oh, wow,'" said Myles. That 'wow' factor comes with added flavor when you learn these classes are free for those who sign up... and one of the teachers was once a student. "It was hard and I can help people in the same situation as me," said Tenorio.

Cindi Holloway has her master's degree. She has her own business. She served her country for 18 years and she knows what it's like to not have enough money for food. "You get such a pain in your stomach, you almost want to throw up it hurts. You almost feel it into your backbone, it hurts so bad," said Holloway.

She takes care of her patients a few blocks away in Elk Run Heights. Money is tight so she goes to the Northeast Iowa Food Bank once a month. "People need to understand that just because I go to the food bank, it doesn't mean I'm not trying. I am trying. I'm trying very hard," said Holloway.

Her message to others in the same boat is don't be too proud and have an attitude of gratitude. She wrote a thank you card to the food bank, a card that still sits on a desk in their office. "I got a personal call from the director saying, 'Thank you so much for letting us know what a difference it made in your life,'" said Holloway.

That's a simple gesture from someone who represents a complex problem. It's the new hungry reality in Iowa, but as Cindi, Nicole and Cinda know, help is within reach.

**What can people legally buy with their SNAP benefits and what's against the law?  Find out here: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/eligible-food-items

**Information about SHARE program: http://www.shareiowa.com/index.php

**Information about NE Iowa Food Bank: http://www.northeastiowafoodbank.org/

**Information about free programs for parents through Iowa State University Extension and Outreach: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/nutrition-education

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