Extension specialists support Iowa’s pandemic recovery

April 30, 2021

by Lisa Bates, Jane Goeken, Courtney Long, Shelley Oltmans, and Omar Padilla, ISU Extension and Outreach Community Development Specialists

FFED’s Courtney Long and four other community development specialists from the Community and Economic Development program are among the 50 extension professionals coordinating Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s efforts to help Iowans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recovery efforts focus on six critical issues:

Iowa county map.
  • the economy
  • financial security
  • the food supply
  • youth education
  • mental health
  • child care

Each Iowa county’s extension staff ranked each priority area by importance. You can see the issues they chose on the map. Extension-wide COVID-19 Recovery Initiative teams (I-Teams) came together 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. They have been working to support the 47 counties that chose this initiative as their top recovery priority. Surveys from the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Institute for Decision Making indicate that in both urban and rural areas, the pandemic continues to negatively impact the vast majority of community organizations.

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

Two people look at papers on table.

The list includes many CED programs that aid local organizations and governments. These include the Iowa Retail Initiative, the Rural Housing Readiness Assessment, and CED’s collaboration with Iowa’s SBDC. This partership 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 can cover expenses and pay bills on time. They can also absorb a financial shock such as an emergency car or home repair or a temporary job lay-off.

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 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 includes nine extension professionals. They have identified, modified, and promoted several programs to help communities address financial security issues. These include four programs delivered by CED staff: grant-writing workshops, RHRA, data literacy workshops, and strategic planning and facilitation services.

Food supply, safety, and access

Two people talk in a greenhouse.

The Food Supply, Safety, and Access I-Team supports county staff in their efforts to respond to food systems needs. CED/FFED 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. This led to 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. They also may create opportunities for community development related to food supply. 

Fifteen counties 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.

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. The number of providers accepting state child-care assistance also 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.

Many of the issues plaguing child-care providers are systemic. The Child Care I-Team 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.

Find out more about how ISU Extension and Outreach is supporting Iowa’s pandemic recovery on the COVID-19 Recovery website.

This article is reprinted with permission from the April 2021 issue of Community Matters Now, the Community and Economic Development program newsletter.