The Coralville Community Food Pantry offers music, poetry and dance in exchange for support fighting food insecurity

Music for Meals - oralville Community Food Pantry and North Ridge Pavilion, Coralville -- Thursday, May 27, 5:30 p.m.

Music for Meals artists (clockwise from top left): Sam Huang Hao, Sandrah Nina, Blake Shaw, Dan Padley and Caleb Rainey — photos courtesy of the artists

Over the last several years, the food insecurity rate in Johnson County was dropping. According to interactive maps from the organization Feeding America, it went from 13.9 percent in 2016 down to 8.2 percent in 2018 and maintained that in 2019. But a projection the site ran for the impacts of COVID-19 predicted a rise to 10.6 percent for the year 2020.

As someone who has myself felt the impact of hunger, having been on food stamps at multiple points in my adult life and utilizing food banks during one interminable stretch between jobs, those are more than just statistics. They’re the uncertainty of being able to fill my kids’ bellies. They’re the embarrassment of even asking for help (something that I am notoriously bad at).

The Coralville Community Food Pantry (CCFP), founded in 2009, has made it their mission to address not just food insecurity, but the stigma surrounding it. And they’ve made great strides toward doing so. “Food brings us together” is the central message on their website landing page, and they work hard to remind our community of that simple truth.

Each year, they hold a community meal that welcomes all comers without question of need, simply to break bread together. This month, they’ll host a foraging clinic for beginners of all ages, which will be livestreamed to reach more than just the limited number of attendees they can allow. They recently held a two-day vaccination clinic at the Coralville Public Library with the goal of providing 600+ doses to vulnerable Iowans. And during the height of the pandemic last year, they delivered food to the homes of those who were unable or unwilling to venture out for it, just as major grocery stores were expanding their delivery programs as well.

This ethos of serving the whole person, not just the need, is evident in their annual fundraiser, Music for Meals, as well. By pairing music and other performance with a curated dinner, they feed the spirits as well as the bellies of even their donors, reminding them of their own wholeness, as well as that of the people their donations support.

The Coralville Community Food Pantry serves meals to the public, pre-pandemic. — courtesy of CCFP

Tara McGovern, lead organizer of this year’s event, has been a CCFP board member just since January of this year. She describes the organization as “more than a pantry, it’s a community united in dedication to addressing the physical and emotional needs of every resident.” Her involvement with the M4M event began last year, as a performer.

“Last year I was a performer in my folk rock duo with Jeffrey C. Capps called The Soft and Low,” McGovern said in an email. “Jeff and I were both so honored to be included as we are both devoted to the pantry, me as a longtime resident of Coralville and Jeff as the director of the Iowa Children’s Museum (located in Coralville).”

McGovern is a steady hand in every task she undertakes, bringing the same mix of flexibility and precision as she exhibits as a performer — and her influence can be seen in the details of the upcoming fundraiser. It’s a delicate balance of meeting the needs of those who still aren’t attending events and those who are eager to venture out. Last year’s Music for Meals was entirely virtual, but this year, it’s a hybrid event, with a cap of 50 on in-person attendance.

Guests will bring their own seating and beverages, and spread out at COVID-safe distances around the outside patio of the North Ridge Pavilion in Coralville. At home viewers will watch live, thanks to CoralVision, Coralville’s public, education and government channel. The price is the same for each — $25 — and tickets include a charcuterie board developed by their community meal team, which can be picked up or delivered the day of the event. (A “pod” ticket for $200 includes either four in-person tickets or unlimited virtual access with a second charcuterie board and the opportunity to record a message to play during the event.)

It’s incredibly well-designed, the work of folks who have absolutely been paying attention during this pandemic and know what to keep and what to toss of the lessons they’ve learned.

“We were always planning a virtual element … to make the event available to as much of our community as possible,” McGovern said. “John [Boller, CCFP executive director] and I have both been very impressed with virtual offerings by arts organizations such as the Englert and Riverside Theatre, and we have definitely drawn inspiration from the advantages of connecting in this new and powerfully inclusive way.”

The variety of performers chosen for this year’s event also clearly reflects the skill and values of both McGovern and the CCFP. Although the event is still billed as Music for Meals, those sharing their talent include a poet and a dancer, as well. All were chosen not just for their considerable skill, but as a reflection of the community.

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“Coralville is fortunate to be one of the most racially diverse towns in the state of Iowa, but that diversity has only recently been reflected in our city council with the election of Iowa’s first ever Vietnamese American person to be elected to public office, Hai Huynh (a campaign that John and I both worked on and that John led),” McGovern said. “As people who value representation, we prioritize choosing innovative and masterful artists who also accurately reflect the racial demographics of our community.”

Those include headliners Dan Padley and Blake Shaw, who, McGovern noted, “have an incredible magic and rapport playing as a duo”; local dancer and activist Sandrah Nina (currently studying in Pittsburgh); tenor Sam Huang Hao, of whom McGovern said, “His version of ‘O Sole Mio’ posted on his YouTube channel had me in tears”; and poet Caleb Rainey, whose collections, McGovern said, are “permanently in my personal reading rotation.”

Among organizers and performers alike, there is a clear deep commitment to the cause. Rainey, who had been unfamiliar with the benefit until he was invited to perform, said that “food insecurity is something that I care a lot about.”

“I have grown up needing a food pantry,” he continued. “Anything I can do to help the movement for a hunger-free community, I’m there for.”

Dan Padley performs with the Elizabeth Moen band at Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles, Iowa. Aug. 4, 2019. — Sophie McClatchey/Little Village

Padley noted in an email, “I decided to do this fundraiser because I think all people deserve access and availability to good, healthy food.”

And for McGovern, “I feel strongly that the food insecurity of any one individual or family is a community issue, and one that we all have the responsibility to address.”

The Music for Meals event certainly gives the community an opportunity to both make strides to address that and to feed their own hunger for great art. The CCFP has a $7,500 fundraising goal for the event that feels within reach, and it might just be the same pandemic that’s increasing food insecurity that drives the desire to address it.

“Luckily,” Rainey told me, “what I think happened is COVID made us very aware of parts of the systems that weren’t working for us … gave us the heart and compassion to change the systems that we’re just now becoming aware of.”

IC Speaks Director Caleb Rainey introduces students at the IC Speaks Showcase on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Genevieve Trainor is proud to be a member of a community that values wholeness. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 294.