During the summer, the Coralville Public Library (CPL) unveiled a new community fridge that offers free, ready-to-eat food to anyone who opens its doors. But recently, library staff have struggled to keep it stocked.
“If you stick something in, you go away maybe in a couple hours, when you come back, everything’s cleared out,” said Samira Abdalla, CPL’s community resources navigator. “The demand is really high, especially now.”
Prior to the pandemic, CPL Assistant Director Ellen Alexander would watch kids come to the library after school and stay until the library closed at 8:30 p.m. As the hours ticked away, she realized they weren’t eating anything, so CPL contacted the Coralville Community Food Pantry (CCFP) about providing free snacks.
That budding partnership evolved into community meals hosted on the library lawn, accepting food donations for the pantry and eventually, the community fridge. The pantry envisioned using the library’s little coffee shop — a cozy area with large, eastern-facing windows — as an access point for community resources.
When people move to a new area, the library is one of the first places they visit, said John Boller, executive director of CCFP. Last year, CCFP proposed installing a community fridge in the café space, which the library readily accepted.
The pantry used an $89,500 grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health to create the program, spending $2,500 on the fridge and supplies, while much of the remaining funds went to Abdalla’s community ambassador position at the library.
Alexander and Abdalla hope the fridge will destigmatize food insecurity by providing simple meals to people who otherwise wouldn’t use a community pantry, or who haven’t heard about CCFP. The library provides an easy introduction to those resources.
“People don’t have to purchase anything to sit here all day. They don’t have to be affiliated with any belief system. They don’t have to be a certain age, or a certain anything,” Alexander said. “We don’t want there to be a stigmatization with taking anything from it. We want it to be a welcoming, non-judgmental community space.”
Abdalla sees “basically everyone” using the fridge, from kids to older individuals, people from different races and income brackets, and more. She eats lunch from the fridge occasionally, and they encourage library staff to eat there as well. The fridge is for everyone.
“It’s not just for certain populations. Everyone can come, just grab what they need, eat what they need, and be happy,” Abdalla said.
The fridge is stocked with a variety of foods, including grab-and-go sandwiches, prepackaged salads, yogurts, applesauce, a “surprising” amount of fruits and vegetables, granola bars and other nonperishable items. These are supplied by the food pantry with their partners like Table to Table and Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP).
“The items we have in the fridge and on the counter are mostly grab-and-go,” Abdalla said. “It’s not a shopping place for people because there’s a pantry, and because we don’t have that big of a supply.”
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Abdalla also collects food donations from Bruegger’s Bagels three days a week, typically coming back with two bags of fresh bagels, but sometimes five or six bags. She collects prepackaged sandwiches and small desserts from Starbucks two days a week. The food is fresh — the bagels come out the oven that morning — but would’ve been tossed in the dumpster otherwise.
“We really hope to have a sense of community out there, coming together, and kind of building community through food,” Alexander said.
Iowa has the second-lowest food insecurity rate in the country, behind only New Hampshire, at 7 percent of the population, or around 224,000 people from 2019-2021, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This means that one in 14 people are unable to obtain enough food to meet their needs, or are uncertain if they can.
But the Feeding Iowans Task Force, created by Gov. Kim Reynolds in March 2020, found that nearly 460,000 Iowans experienced food insecurity during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 51 percent increase, or one in 7 people.
Abdalla has noticed a few regulars at the community fridge. Others come with bags. The library doesn’t encourage “shopping,” instead referring people to the food pantry’s wider selection. But sometimes she watches people come to the fridge, see the empty shelves and walk away empty-handed.
“We just want to have something out there,” she said. “I want something to be there for them to just not be disappointed when they see nothing.”
Pre-pandemic, Alexander considered having a full-time social worker on staff to help connect people to local resources, like the food pantry. As lockdowns began, she noticed more people in need, and that hasn’t waned with the current economy’s high inflation, she said.
“The food demand, I feel like, is increasing both in the sense of maybe more people facing food insecurity, but also in the sense of the supply possibly diminishing,” she said.
During the community fridge’s soft opening in June, the food pantry delivered almost every day, sometimes twice a day. But now they come once or twice a week. Supply is dwindling while demand has remained constant.
“We’re seeing supply issues with the food pantry, and have been all year, even kind of going back to late last year,” Boller said. “It’s been a major struggle to keep our shelves and coolers filled at the pantry alone.”
Food pantries and banks across the country are experiencing the same problem because of “supply chain issues,” he explained. HACAP and Table to Table just don’t have the nonperishable and protein staples they need.
“There will be food in the fridge often, but sometimes there won’t be. And that’s just the unfortunate part of that model,” Boller said. “As a smaller organization, we’re constrained quite a bit, as far as where we can place orders to kind of fill the gaps.”
Boller hopes that food supply will increase when the food pantry moves into their new location in early November. The upgraded home, the pantry’s “longtime dream,” will finally have space to accommodate wholesale food orders, which are often sold in large, two to three pallet minimums.
“We’ve just been so grateful for our partnership with the library. We have done so much with them, and they again are on the frontlines when it comes to helping community members who need access to various resources,” he said.
Abdalla has been contacting other local business in hopes of finding other sources of food. The beginning of the week is especially tough, since the pantry is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
“It would be nice to just have other businesses help out. We’ve definitely seen the demand, and it’s helping people,” she said. “We don’t want to see the fridge empty, because we can see that it’s such a benefit to the community.”
Businesses that want to donate food should contact Abdalla, while individuals interested in supporting the community fridge should donate through the Coralville Community Food Pantry. The library cannot accept homemade food donations, like baked goods, casseroles or mashed potatoes.
“Since it’s a community fridge, it will take the community to keep stocking it, and making sure that everyone has access to it,” Abdalla said.