People & Places

Veteran sees efforts to provide hungry with locally grown produce as a mission

Feed Iowa First now in its sixth year

Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First, plants Swiss chard in a garden next to Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on May 10, 2016. Kendrick, an army veteran, started Feed Iowa First after living in poverty and experiencing the lack of healthy food at the food pantry. With Feed Iowa First, Kendrick hopes to provide fresh vegetables to the 26,000 hungry people in Linn County and to train farmers of the future. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First, plants Swiss chard in a garden next to Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids on May 10, 2016. Kendrick, an army veteran, started Feed Iowa First after living in poverty and experiencing the lack of healthy food at the food pantry. With Feed Iowa First, Kendrick hopes to provide fresh vegetables to the 26,000 hungry people in Linn County and to train farmers of the future. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Sonia Kendrick is a disabled veteran, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Her wounds are hidden.

After serving in Afghanistan in 2003, Kendrick returned to Iowa and struggled to reintegrate.

“I encountered a lot of things that affect me even to this day,” she said. “Then I came back here and I didn’t fit in.”

To cope, she was drinking an eighth of whiskey each day, she admitted.

Then, in 2009, she was laid off from Clipper Windpower and wasn’t able to find another job for six months. She had a family of four to feed, including two daughters and a now ex-husband. With one less income, they had to use the food pantry.

They weren’t alone.

According to the USDA, about 400,000 people in Iowa go to bed hungry, 26,000 of whom are in Linn County. Not only are they hungry, but also malnourished and developing diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, Kendrick said — she herself gained 70 pounds while using the pantry.

“The assumption is that poor people don’t want to eat good (healthy) food,” she said. “But good food is expensive.”

Instead, the food they’re eating at the pantry “isn’t really food,” she said. “It’s filler.”

Kendrick couldn’t ignore what she was seeing and living. If there’s one thing the military taught her, she said, it’s that “if there’s a problem, you do something about it.”

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As a self-proclaimed “food democracy activist,” Kendrick believes “everybody deserves good food.

“It’s our right to know what’s in our food and to be informed.”

In 2012, one year after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Kendrick completed a bachelor’s degree in agronomy at Iowa State University. She’s currently finishing her master’s in sustainable food systems.

While at ISU, she learned about our food system and came to believe that pesticides and herbicides are “destroying our health” and that monocropping — the practice of growing a single crop on the same land year after year, such as corn and soybeans, for example — can harm water and soil.

“We have maybe 70 years before this state practically turns into a desert,” she said.

And while our global population steadily increases, our farmers and formable land decreases.

The average American farmer is in his or her late 50s, and for years that median age has been rising.

It used to be that a farmer’s child would take over the family farm, but after seeing their parents struggle, they’re discouraged, Kendrick explained. Outsiders interested in farming, meanwhile, are disadvantaged by expensive start-up costs and fewer resources.

“Our food is too cheap for farmers to make food that is sustainably produced, where the farmer is treated equitably and the land is taken care of,” Kendrick said.

And to feed the world, Iowa first needs to feed itself, which is what Kendrick intends to do with Feed Iowa First, a not-for-profit she founded in 2010 that grows fresh produce for pantries while also training the future’s farmers.

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To help the 26,000 hungry people in Linn County, the recommended serving of vegetables each day — two and a half cups — Kendrick needs 500 acres of land. Today, in her sixth year with Feed Iowa First, Kendrick has 25 acres spread throughout the Corridor.

Last year, they produced $83,000 worth or produce, but they still have a long way to go. Kendrick still doesn’t take home a paycheck and neither do her farmers-in-training.

She thinks there’s a solution, but “people don’t like her solutions,” she said.

One option is to raise the minimum wage to a living wage and increase the price of food at the same time, she suggested.

“But that would require some people to not be so greedy,” she said.

Another option she offered is to consider farming as a public service, as are fire and police services.

“People like to liken farming to any other business, but it’s not the same because Mother Nature is unpredictable,” she said. “Farmers don’t get health insurance or retirement — you’re self-employed and sometimes you have a bad year ...

“I have hope for my children’s sake that things will change,” she added. “I know that for things to change I have to be part of that change, but I can’t do it alone. ‘I can’t feed Iowa first, are you crazy?’ But we could do it. We can.”

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