Gathering with others to share a traditional meal is at the heart of many holiday celebrations. However, preparing the ritual festive spread can be an insurmountable expense for those who are already struggling to put food on their tables, or don’t have a table in the first place. Several organizations around the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area are stepping up to make sure everyone has a chance to eat well this holiday season.
The River Community Church has been serving a free Thanksgiving meal for years, and generally hosts 400-500 people. They provide the full traditional spread, and fill the room to capacity three or four times throughout the afternoon, Rand Baldwin, director of connections at the church, said. He added that there is more to the meal than food — it’s also about bringing people in the community together.
“We’re doing this because we feel there’s a need, and, based on history, there seems to be a need,” Baldwin said. “Neighbors right down the street from us, anyone who’s food insecure, might have trouble making the traditional meal.”
Fourteen percent of Johnson County residents are food insecure, and 40 percent more people live in poverty than the statewide average, according to a 2014 report by the Iowa Community Indicators Program. The report showed Linn County in better shape, with fewer residents experiencing poverty (9.5 percent) and food insecurity (12.2 percent) than the statewide averages (both 12.6 percent). However, a 2016 report by the Iowa Policy Project found that nearly 19 percent of Iowa households with one or more full-time wage earners do not have enough income to meet their basic needs, and the number jumps to over 60 percent for single-parent families.
In Johnson County, the cost of living is higher than any other county in the state, which contributes to food insecurity. While median gross rent rose 35 percent between 1980 and 2014, renters’ average income declined by 13 percent, according to a 2016 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. According to the study, 57 percent of Johnson County renters are considered housing-cost burdened, meaning over 30 percent of their income is spent on housing.
Public officials have recognized and begun to take action on this crisis. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors allocated $600,000 for fiscal year 2017 to the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, and the Iowa City Council added another $500,000 this October. Food stamps, food pantries and free meal programs are available year-round to many Johnson and Linn County residents, and there are several organizations in the area that combine produce donations with education.
At Thanksgiving and Christmas, many churches and organizations open their doors, offering diners both a hot meal and people to share it with. St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s United Methodist Churches in Cedar Rapids are celebrating their 30th year of free Christmas dinners, and expecting hundreds of guests. St. Paul’s will also hand out gifts and groceries. St Mark’s will focus on the religious aspect of the holiday.
“Christmas is more than just a family celebration, it is the Christian Community of Faith coming together to celebrate the birth of Jesus,” Becky Figge of St. Mark’s said in an email.
Amanda Engstrom, of North Liberty, has been independently coordinating a Thanksgiving meal for the past five years. Engstrom rents the South Slope community center, and relies on volunteers and donations to fund and serve the Hy-Vee catered meal to her 50-60 guests.
Other groups, such as the Salvation Army of Johnson County, provide a grocery box filled with ingredients for a holiday meal. Family is a central value, said Social Ministries Coordinator Rachel Lehmann, and the 500 grocery boxes they distribute allow families to spend Thanksgiving together at home.
Whether you are in need of resources to supply your holiday feast, want to help others by donating food or a few hours of your time, or both, there are many opportunities to celebrate the season of giving. Whatever your celebration, may the holidays bring you a full plate, and good company to share it with.