In its first month, a new Cedar Rapids community food pantry has served the needs of more than 160 families. The community pantry, which opened in mid-April, is a project of Urban Dreams, a Des Moines-based nonprofit.
Elizabeth Buch, workforce development coordinator at Urban Dreams, said the number is great but that the food pantry has the capacity to serve even more families. Buch encouraged anyone needing food to stop by.
The food pantry is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Ladd Library, 3750 Williams Blvd SW. On opening day, which was April 15, Buch said a little more than 50 families stopped by. Since then, anywhere from 20 to 30 families have visited each day it is open.
The food pantry has a number of options for families to choose from, including cereal, oatmeal, fresh vegetables, meat and meat alternatives. There are also nonfood products, such as hand sanitizer, tampons and multi-purpose wipes.
“Absolutely anyone can come and get some nutritious, healthy food. There’s no requirement for them to get food from us,” Buch said, adding that individuals don’t have to show an ID.
The only question Urban Dreams asks when a person comes in is how large the group they are shopping for is, because that determines how many bags the individual will receive to fill up with food. Individuals are also asked to fill out an anonymous survey with feedback, but that is not a requirement to receive food, Buch said.
Most of the food in the pantry is provided by HACAP but some of the items are donations from community members. Buch said the food pantry will also be partnering with Feed Iowa First and possibly the Indian Creek Nature Center to be able to supply more fresh produce.
There are also conversations to form a partnership with a gas station or grocery store that has sandwiches or other already-made food for individuals who might need something to eat right away, Buch said.
Urban Dreams is based in Des Moines but assists Iowans statewide, including in Cedar Rapids where an office was opened last year in the Ladd Library.
The nonprofit offers a variety of programs, including outpatient substance abuse treatment and OWI services, workforce development, community events and mental health services. Urban Dreams can also refer clients to other organizations in the area since the nonprofit doesn’t want to duplicate services already being offered, Executive Director Izaah Knox said.
Last July, the City of Cedar Rapids signed a $100,000 agreement with the nonprofit to create a partnership that would connect residents to job-training programs and other opportunities.
Urban Dreams connects residents to organizations in Cedar Rapids that are looking to fill entry to middle-level positions that pay well. The jobs are posted on the organization’s Facebook page, as well as shared through word of mouth at the food pantry or other community events.
The organization has met with at least 27 interested employers to establish a candidate referral program. One of the employers Urban Dreams works with is Hy-Vee, and candidates who are referred through Urban Dreams automatically increase their wage by an extra dollar if they are hired by the grocery chain, Buch said.
“What I would really love to highlight is that if you’re looking for a good job that could turn into a career that pays well, that can get you out of that poverty cycle, you can come to Urban Dreams and see the vast, different industry jobs that we have available,” Buch said.
A big piece of the Urban Dreams model since its founding in 1985 has been connecting with the community. Knox said the organization continues to focus on building a good foundation in Cedar Rapids with the help of the city.
The next goal is to continue to scale up the workforce development program and the food pantry while also continuing to see what else the community needs and responding accordingly.
“It’s really the model that we went with our entire career since we opened in ‘85 in Des Moines was to provide the services that the community needs and then build those relationships so that we can then help them get to the next step that they may not even know that they need,” Knox said.
Those community events are free to the public and are a way to engage with residents, Buch said, adding that she is excited to bring more of those events to Cedar Rapids.
One of the events Urban Dreams held last year in the city was a Thanksgiving basket giveaway. Buch said more than 400 Thanksgiving meals were donated to people in the city.
The organization is planning additional events for this year, including a community car check-up that is expected to happen in the fall. The event will be an opportunity for anyone in the community to come have their vehicles looked at, tires checked and get parts replaced.
Buch said the event is a way to make vehicles safer for an Iowa winter but it’s also much bigger than that. Urban Dreams created the community car check-up five years ago in response to the death of Philando Castile, a Black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2016 during a traffic stop in Minneapolis.
Research published last May by the Stanford Open Policing Project found that Black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, relative to their share of the residential population. The researchers used a dataset of nearly 100 million traffic stops across the country.
“The Des Moines Police Department connected with Urban Dreams [five years ago] to figure out a way that maybe something like that wouldn’t happen so close to home, and that is how this community event really came about,” Buch said, adding that she is excited for this event to come to Cedar Rapids.
“It provides an opportunity for community members to get their lights fixed, and that was the cause of being pulled over for Philando, was that his [brake] light was broken. So getting people’s lights fixed, getting their cars safe for the winter, but it also provides police officers the opportunity to focus on other crimes and focus their attention on more pressing issues.”