‘The need is great’: Nonprofits in eastern Iowa work to meet families’ need for fresh food during pandemic

Washington High School’s golf group has been helping Meals on Wheels by loading boxes into volunteers’ cars on Friday Mornings. Photo taken on March 27. — Mary Griffin/Horizons

Living in a food desert — a place where there is limited access to healthy and affordable food — is not a new issue in eastern Iowa. But COVID-19 has increased the need for fresh food and has changed how nonprofits in the state can deliver that food to people who need it most.

Organizations attribute part of the need to the high levels of unemployment in Iowa. The total number of first-time unemployment claims in Iowa since COVID-19 is 214,033.

That increased need, along with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ guidelines and social distancing, has required organizations to adjust how they operate. While they are grateful to be of help during the pandemic, they also report feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of people requesting services.

Prior to the pandemic, about 53,000 people living in HACAP’s service area were facing food insecurity on a regular basis, said Kim Guardado, director of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program‘s Food Reservoir. The nonprofit serves people within Linn, Johnson, Jones, Iowa, Benton and Washington counties; their Food Reservoir also serves Cedar County.

“So take those folks and add to them the number of people that have lost their jobs or are unable to work right now,” Guardado said. “We don’t really have good data on how many more people, but when you look at the unemployment claims, that tells you that the need is great.”

Field to Family director Michelle Kenyon said she’s also seen the affect of job disruptions on families’ food security.

“Unemployment levels are the highest they’ve ever been, [and] people need more access, but the reality of COVID-19 is getting that produce and getting that food access have changed — and it’s become a challenge.”

Making changes

Field to Family, which serves people in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area, had to move quickly to meet the community’s need for local food and fresh produce, Kenyon said. The group is a mission-driven nonprofit that works to create more access to local foods for people and works to promote local farmers.

Each of Field to Family’s four programs — Farm to School, Food Hub, Farm Stands and Certified Local — has been affected in some way, Kenyon said. But the Farm to School program has been impacted the most.

The Farm to School program supports school gardens and brings the “farm” to the school to help students learn where their food comes from, encourage healthy food habits and connect farmers to schools. The nonprofit is looking at possible ways to continue the program virtually.

“This one has been slower for us to pivot on because schools aren’t sure exactly what they’re able to say about the school year, but we hope to have that solved in the next couple weeks,” Kenyon said. On Friday, April 17, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that Iowa schools will be closed for the rest of the school year.

“I just never have seen the need for a more strong and resilient community food system, and in some ways, I’m grateful that people are realizing that,” Kenyon said. “But it’s always been important. Our food system currently isn’t reliable or secure.”

“And I’m hoping that people are going to support local farmers now more than ever, [and] not just now but also throughout the next decade and more.”

The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program — better known as HACAP — also had to make changes to its programs, including their Food Reservoir. HACAP recently received a $30,000 grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

The Food Reservoir collects food donations and distributes them to partner agencies in the area that then provide the food to individuals in need. The Food Reservoir distributes over 6 million pounds of food every year. The reservoir also has its own mobile food pantry, the BackPack program to provide food to students, and a program dedicated to providing seniors with food.

One of the ways HACAP’s Food Reservoir has had to change its operations is by telling partner agencies to shift from an open choice pantry to packed food boxes. The open choice pantry is more like a grocery store, with food being on the shelves and people able to choose what they want and how much they need. The same change had to be made with the reservoir’s mobile pantry.

Even though the decision to switch made sense due to social distancing guidelines, it was still difficult.

“We’ve worked so hard to push to that choice model,” Guardado said. “[The packed boxes have] made things easier to get food out, but it does not allow families to choose, which is something we’ve worked really hard for, so that’s difficult. But hopefully, this will pass, and we can get back to doing how we did work before.”

Earlier this month, HACAP offered a large drive-through food pantry in the Veterans Memorial Stadium’s parking lot in Cedar Rapids.

Guardado said she couldn’t wrap her head around how many people came. She said more than 850 households — around 3,000 individuals — showed up to get food.

“And that was only the people that came,” Guardado said about the numbers. “When we think about the people that couldn’t come or the people that didn’t want to wait in the line, there’s still a lot of people left that need food. The other thing is that the food we gave them, although it was a great amount of food, it’s only gonna last a family for a week, if that, depending on how large their family is, which just means the need is continuing to increase.”

HACAP’s drive-through pantry on April 9, 2020. Photo provided by Kim Guardado, director of HACAP’s Food Reservoir

HACAP hopes to hold another drive-through event similar to the one on April 9 within the next couple weeks.

“We’ll continue to talk, we’ll continue to pack boxes at the [Cedar Rapids] ice arena until we don’t need to do boxes anymore, and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, but I just feel like it’s not enough,” Guardado said.

“We’re doing our best to meet the need but knowing that we could do so much more and still not be able to feed everybody. … We’ll keep doing it and we’ll figure out how we can reach more people.”

Helping individuals most at risk of COVID-19

COVID-19 is impacting Iowans all across the state, but seniors are at higher risk for severe illness. In order to continue serving seniors safely, Horizons’ Meals on Wheels has made a number of changes and expanded the clients they deliver to.

Horizons, A Family Service Alliance is a nonprofit based in Cedar Rapids that provides a number of programs in Linn and Johnson counties, and other parts of eastern Iowa. One of those programs includes Meals on Wheels, where volunteers deliver fresh meals and frozen meals to older adults and individuals with disabilities. Horizons received a grant from the Cedar Rapids Community Foundation for $5,698 to support the Meals on Wheels program, as well as its Neighborhood Transportation Services program that provides free rides to essential employees.

Normally, meals to seniors are delivered daily and the volunteer also checks in with the client, but the model is not ideal right now, Meals on Wheels director Sofia Mehaffey said.

Instead, clients are getting a delivery once a week and two wellness checks over the phone. Clients have also been getting a box full of shelf-stable foods, in addition to the frozen meals. The volunteers leave the food boxes outside the door.

“We have ramped up production like crazy,” Mehaffey said.

“We’ve been cranking out frozen meals from our kitchen because we wanted to get ahead of how many we actually needed just in case something were to happen where one of our kitchen employees would be exposed and we [would have] to shut down for a couple of days to clean up the kitchen.”

The nonprofit has also closed its four congregate dining sites, and those clients are now part of the clients who get their meals delivered to their homes. Mehaffey said home-delivered clients are typically someone who is over 60 years old and homebound, meaning they have barriers to transportation, food access or are not able to leave the house without someone coming to help.

During the pandemic, that definition has been broadened because of older adults trying to stay home and out of the store.

“People are now considered homebound due to an underlying condition that maybe wouldn’t have made them homebound otherwise,” Mehaffey said. “But because it’s unsafe for them to go to a store, they’re calling us for service because they’re concerned that they’re going to potentially end up with COVID-19.”

Cedar Rapids River Kings team helped pack food boxes during the afternoon meal packing shift on Friday, March 27. Mary Griffin/Horizons

A few weeks ago, Mehaffey said she asked if Meals on Wheels had experienced an increased number of clients.

“I know that we reviewed 26 intakes in a week, and typically we’ll see maybe one a day,” she said. “So to see so many in a week was a lot, but again, that was early on that people were just sort of starting to say, ‘maybe this is a better option for me.’ But now, I would guess if I asked [our intake specialist] again, she would say we’ve seen far more people coming on than we did initially because people are really starting to understand the seriousness of it.”

Mehaffey said she’s seen an “outpour of support from the community,” which has been important during a time when volunteers have had to pull themselves off of routes because they are older themselves or have an underlying health condition.

“We have been inundated with support,” Mehaffey said. “So even though we’ve had volunteers saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t come in,’ we’ve been able to get out everything that we’ve been doing.”

“So [we’re] really grateful for the supportive community to help us serve the people that need us most right now.”

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