‘They need a place, we have land’: Church donates property for major Coralville Community Food Pantry expansion

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Coralville Community Food Pantry, April 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“All of this could not be happening at a more opportune or critical time,” John Boller said at the groundbreaking ceremony held for the Coralville Community Food Pantry’s new building at the Coralville United Methodist Church on Thursday. Boller, the pantry’s executive directory, explained that “more of our neighbors than ever before” are facing food insecurity as “inflation is at record levels while safety net programs are diminishing at a rapid rate.”

“Life is not getting any easier or cheaper. So, the Coralville Community Food Pantry is a direly needed community resource, and this future building will help us build a stronger, healthier, and hunger-free Coralville.”

The new building will be 5,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the pantry’s current location. Boller told Little Village that location, a former post office on 5th Street, was always considered temporary, because the pantry really needed more space.

“Even right when we moved in, we started thinking about where we were going to end up long term,” he said. “We have so many storage constraints.”

Even with those constraints, the pantry was able to serve the needs of almost 3,500 individuals a week last year, in addition to distributing more than 15,000 meals to schools during COVID-19 disruptions.

“With the new building, we’ll have a lot more room to store food, which is really wonderful,” Boller said.

The larger building will also provide room for a less crowded shopping area, a bigger waiting room and more office space. But there will be more to it than just greater square footage.

Hải Huỳnh, community projects coordinator for the Coralville Community Food Pantry, shows Scott Koepke the plans for the pantry’s new facility, April 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village.

The grounds of the new building will feature an educational garden, where people can learn about growing their food. The pantry already works to promote locally and home grown foods, distributing 30,000 pounds of locally grown fruits and vegetables last year and more than 1,000 garden seed packets. The new location will give them a chance to expand on that.

“Our plan for most of the landscaping around the building is to have edible landscaping,” Boller said. “Fruit trees, nut trees and all sorts of fun, edible plants that people of all ages can enjoy.”

Plans call for fruit trees to include pawpaw trees, which are indigenous to Iowa and produce yellow-green, potato-shaped fruit with a creamy texture that tastes like a cross between mangos and bananas.

There will also be a patio area with picnic tables and a community fridge. The patio area will be the site of future grilling and pizza nights, events commonly held by the CCFP before the COVID-19 pandemic. As virus activity receded, the pantry was able to hold two community meals last year — open to everyone, not just clients — which 900 people participated in.

“We have two core beliefs at the pantry,” Boller said about the community meals. “One is that food is human right, and the other is food has the power to bring people together.”

Coralville Community Food Pantry Executive Director John Boller discusses plans for its new building at the groundbreaking ceremony, April 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Although none of those things are common at food pantries, the most unusual aspect of the new facility is its location. The new building will be on the lot of the Coralville United Methodist Church, which has donated the property to the pantry.

The idea for building the pantry’s new home next to the church originated in 2017 with Rev. Leigh Brown, the pastor of Coralville United Methodist.

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“I thought, ‘they need a place, we have land,’” she told Little Village. “We don’t have a lot of money to give as a church, but we do have that. So, it just seemed a natural thing to do, a way that we can make a difference and something they really needed.”

The church has worked with and supported the pantry since it first opened. Brown said it is part of Coralville United Methodist’s mission “to feed the physical and spiritual hunger of the people of this community, so that you all will know that you are bold and beautiful and amazing and loved by God.”

“It’s really important to me to remember why we’re here as a church,” she said. “I always ask myself, if we were to disappear tomorrow, who would know? And so we’re always looking to make a difference in our community.”

In this case, making a difference meant doing something new. Brown said she wasn’t able to find another example of a church giving away some of its property for a project like this, but that didn’t discourage her.

Rev. Leigh Brown, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Coralville, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Coralville Community Food Pantry building, April 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

First, the idea needed the backing of the church board. Board members overwhelmingly backed the proposal, Brown recalled. The next step was to have the congregation vote on it. More than three-quarters of the church’s membership voted to approve giving the land to the pantry. And because all church land is held in trust by the United Methodist Church, Brown needed to secure permission from the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“That part I was nervous about,” she said. Not because of a lack of good will on the part of the conference, but because churches by their nature are cautious and typically reluctant to part with any property they own. But the conference gave its approval.

That still left all the planning and zoning issues any construction project faces at the city level.

“I’ve been in communities of this size before, where the reaction would have been ‘oh no, you’re not going to do that, you’re not putting a food pantry there,’ and it would have been darn near impossible,” Brown said. “But not in this community. They were wonderful.”

As is tradition, shovels were used at the end of the ceremony on Thursday to symbolize the beginning of the project, but behind the pantry workers and supporters, church members and city officials, a construction crew was already at work preparing to lay the foundation of the new pantry.

“We are eager to move in and launch community-focused programs like neighborhood meals, cooking classes, advocacy group meetings, ESL support, entrepreneurial incubators, mobile health clinics, and more,” the Coralville Community Food Pantry says on it site about the new location.

Anyone wishing to donate to support the construction of the new building, or to help the Coralville Community Food Pantry in its day-to-day work, can find information about how to do so on its website.

Construction crews at work on new site, behind groundbreaking ceremony for the new Coralville Community Food Pantry building, April 14, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village