CED programming contributes to extension-wide pandemic recovery effort

April 19, 2021

IRI Retail Champions one-month action item cardFive community development specialists from the Community and Economic Development program are among the 50 extension professionals who are coordinating Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s efforts to help Iowans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recovery efforts are focused on six critical issues: the economy, financial security, the food supply, youth education, mental health, and child care (see article on page 1). Extension-wide Covid-19 Recovery Initiative teams (I-Teams) were established to promote and develop programming focused on these issues.

Economic Revival

CED specialist Lisa Bates and seven other extension specialists make up the Economy I-Team, which has been working to support the 47 counties that chose this initiative as their top recovery priority. Surveys conducted by Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Institute for Decision Making indicate that in both urban and rural areas, the vast majority of community organizations continue to be negatively impacted as a result of the pandemic.

The team has compiled a database of current Extension programs, processes, and tools that support economic recovery by addressing five specific focus areas: community economy, farm business, industry, small business, and youth.

Many CED programs that aid local organizations and governments are included in this database, including the Iowa Retail Initiative (IRI), the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment (RHRA), and CED’s collaboration with Iowa’s SBDC, which links small-business services to minority-owned businesses across the state.

Financial Security

Seven county Extension offices identified residents’ financial security as their top recovery area.

Financially secure Iowans are able to cover expenses and pay bills on time and do not worry about having enough money to get by. They can also absorb a financial shock, such as an emergency repair to a car or home, or a temporary lay-off from a job.

Improving the financial security of Iowans is important because, according to the National Financial Capability Study:

  • Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 56% of Iowans reported feeling anxious when thinking about their personal finances.
  • In a typical month, 51% of Iowans find it somewhat or very difficult to cover all of their expenses and bills.
  • Just over half (52%) of Iowans have no emergency savings fund.
  • Approximately 26.5% of Iowans lack access to revolving credit, such as a credit card, or home equity line of credit.

The Financial Security I-Team, which is comprised of nine extension professionals, including CED specialist Omar Padilla, has identified, modified, and promoted several programs to help communities address financial security issues, including four programs delivered by CED staff: grant writing workshops, RHRA, data literacy workshops, and strategic planning and facilitation services.

Food Supply, Safety, and Access

The Food Supply, Safety, and Access I-Team supports ISU Extension and Outreach staff in their efforts to respond to needs around food access, safety and supply. CED specialist Courtney Long and seven other extension professionals make up this team.

Food insecurity was a critical issue in Iowa even before the Covid-19 shutdown. The pre-pandemic data in 2020’s Hunger in Iowa report (produced by Feeding America) indicated one in 10 Iowans and one in seven Iowa children were struggling with hunger. Food insecurity has worsened as a result of pandemic-related unemployment and underemployment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa experienced food supply-chain disruptions, as well as an uptick in consumer interest in local foods, home gardening and small farm production. These changes created food safety considerations related to production, harvesting and preparation; and may create opportunities for community development related to food supply.  

Fifteen counties have prioritized food as a Covid-19 recovery issue. Most counties have stated interest in food access, including donation and pantry programs; educational components, such as farm to school and master gardeners; and/or small farm and food production.

Community Economic Development programs that could support this effort include general coalition and facilitation support, as many counties are seeking collective understanding of food-related needs and then cooperative action to meet those needs. CED’s Community Food Systems and Iowa Retail Initiative programs are also available for counties seeking community development options.

Child Care

Child care is a community issue that impacts families, the workforce, businesses, and community resilience.

In the five years prior to the pandemic, nearly 40% of Iowa’s child-care providers closed, and the number of providers accepting state child-care assistance decreased by 42%. Remaining providers struggled to retain teachers, at an average wage of $9 per hour, while keeping rates affordable for families.

The pandemic exacerbated child-care issues related to access, affordability, and quality. At the peak, more than 1,000 licensed child-care centers were closed. Those that remained open or reopened suffer from decreased enrollment, increased costs due to public health guidelines, and high staff turnover.

While many of the issues plaguing child-care providers are systemic, the Child Care I-Team, including CED specialists Shelley Oltmans and Jane Goeken, is working with counties and partners to develop community-based solutions to:

  • Increase awareness of child-care issues and economic impact,
  • Provide educational resources for prospective and existing child-care providers, and
  • Provide education and resources for families with older children so they are safe at home on their own.

To develop these community solutions, CED staff provide guidance and tools to assist county staff in framing local issues, identifying partners, building relationships, convening groups and organizing educational events.