Following a few brief remarks from its executive director, and a round of applause from supporters and volunteers, the Coralville Community Food Pantry reopened its doors to the public on Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a really good day,” Executive Director John Boller said. The pantry’s staff and volunteers we excited to welcome clients back inside for the first time since COVID-19 had forced the nonprofit to stop allowing people come more than a year ago, he said, but noted the pandemic isn’t over yet. Everyone entering the building is required to wear a mask.
After Boller finished speaking, there was a spray of soap bubbles — as festive as confetti, but no one needs to sweep up afterwards — and the Coralville Community Food Pantry welcomed its first clients inside since March 17, 2020.
Even though the pantry closed to in-person shopping the same Tuesday much of the state shut down due to the pandemic, it never stopped serving the needs of people in Coralville and Tiffin, Boller explained to Little Village.
The pantry immediately pivoted to curbside pick-up of prepacked bags of groceries and developed a delivery service as well.
“Lazy Boy Delivery contacted us, offering to help and delivered orders for free for the first couple of months,” which helped them in establishing the new service, Boller recalled. Pantry volunteers now make the deliveries, and Boller said the program will continue even now that the building reopened, because it increased the accessibility of food for people in need.
Prior to the pandemic, the pantry was already serving 3,300 residents of Coralville and Tiffin, but it saw the need for its service greatly increase as COVID-19 became widespread in Iowa.
“There was a huge uptick right at the beginning of the pandemic, with countless first-time visitors, families who had never had to turn to a pantry for support before,” Boller said.
As federal aid, such as stimulus checks, supplemental unemployment benefits and increased SNAP benefits, became available, the numbers leveled off and began to decline.
“But late last summer and into the fall and the winter months, we saw an uptick again,” Boller said. Demand declined again with the last round of stimulus payments, but that is not expected to last.
“Now, this summer, we’re inching up again,” Boller said. “We’re anticipating an increase as a lot of the protections that were in place are starting to fall away and we’re prepared to fill the gap.”
The change to curbside and home delivery involved more than a change in how food reached people — it also changed what food reached them.
“We always prided ourselves on allowing people to have their choice [of groceries], because that’s just a more dignified approach,” Boller said. “It’s just a better way.”
But for the new delivery styles to be workable, some prepacking of food parcels was necessary. But the pantry still tried to allow as much choice as possible. Staff members would meet clients curbside, and using iPads present a menu of items they could choose from.
Fresh foods were in high demand throughout that time, and the pantry saw an increase in requests for plant-based alternatives to meat and milk.
“So, we bought those to distribute,” Boller said.
Now that it’s open for in-person shopping again, pantry clients will find a few changes. They are still able to choose whatever items they want, and except for a few limited items, as much as they want, but the check-in process has been streamlined. The pandemic pause gave pantry staff an opportunity to rethink procedures, so everything is now being done electronically, eliminating the old paperwork that had previously been required.
But some things do remain the same. The pantry still needs volunteers to help with shelving and delivery. Information about volunteering can be found on the pantry’s website.
And, of course, financial support from the community remains vital.
“We can take a $1 donation, and through our number-one food resource, HACAP, purchase about $50 worth of food,” Boller said.
Because it is much more efficient for the panty to acquire food that way, and because it only has limited storage space, the pantry no longer accepts donations of food items. But it still accepts donations of the non-food items it provides, such as diapers, toothpaste, toilet paper and other sanitary products. The pantry also accepts donations of pet food. A month before COVID-19 reached Iowa, it began providing assistance to Coralville and Tiffin pet owners in need of food for their four-legged friends.
Donations can be made online through the pantry’s website. They can also be mailed to:
Coralville Community Food Pantry
P.O. Box 5523
Coralville, IA 52241
The pantry is located at 1002 5th St in Coralville. It is open for shopping four days each week.
Tuesday: 2-6 p.m.
Wednesday: 5-7 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m.-noon