When Peggy Fritz was out of work earlier this year, it was hard to keep enough food on the table.
She often made the 45-minute drive from her home in Marengo to Cedar Rapids, where she could access a food pantry for veterans — in her small Iowa County town there are few options for those facing hunger.
Even after finding a job in April, making ends meet has been hard. So she had a big smile on her face when a mobile food pantry truck pulled up in front of the Marengo Public Library Monday and volunteers helped her fill bags with food from long tables.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old boy that doesn’t stop eating,” she said. “This is great — they gave us a lot of stuff we need and then some.”
The non-profit Feeding America estimates more than 12 percent of Iowa residents were food insecure in 2014 — more than 384,000 people. Getting food to their tables takes a veritable village’s worth of individuals, companies and non-profits working together.
The mobile pantry, for example, was recently purchased for the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program — or HACAP — by Alliant Energy. HACAP partnered with the Marengo Public Library to bring food to the town, the same library where director Jackie Jordan coordinates with the Iowa County Ministerial Alliance to send food parcels home with children in the summer reading program whose families struggle without school lunches to supplement meals. Meanwhile, HACAP filled the mobile pantry with everything from cereal donated by General Mills to produce given by backyard gardeners — food that is sorted, loaded and distributed by a small army of volunteers.
The ways the community works together like this — and how community members can get involved — is the theme of an event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids.
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“Eat. Grow. Share: Fighting Food Insecurity in Linn County” is being presented by the Linn County Food System Council, Linn County Public Health, Healthy Plate, ISU Extension — Linn County Master Gardeners, Matthew 25, Horizons, HACAP, Feed Iowa First, Frontier Co-op, the city of Cedar Rapids, Mercy Cedar Rapids and NewBo City Market.
Mobile food pantries are to be on display, and attendees have a chance to learn about food insecurity and sign up to volunteer with area organizations working against hunger.
“The goal is to educate, to have people become more aware and become more engaged,” said Linda Gorkow, director of HACAP’s food reservoir.
The food reservoir acts as a central hub for food donations, collecting and redistributing food to around 60 partner food pantries and feeding programs across seven Eastern Iowa counties. They send emergency food boxes to many of those agencies — boxes meant to contain staples that could get a family through a couple of days, things like rice or pasta, canned fruits and vegetables and proteins such as peanut butter, beans and tuna.
At Saturday’s event, area chefs are taking part in a “food box challenge,” in which they cook a meal from the items in the box, supplemented with produce from Feed Iowa First and the NewBo City Market garden.
Amy Lepowsky is an epidemiologist for Linn County Public Health and is a member of the Linn County Food Systems Council and the Food Environment Alliance. She said the chef’s challenge is meant to illustrate the difficulties of creating a healthy and satisfying meal when relying on donations.
“Food pantries are at the mercy of the donations. When individuals go in, they don’t necessarily get items they could make a full, balanced meal out of,” she said. “A lot of people we’ve spoken with have chronic disease issues, and they have to abide by a certain diet, and they can’t have high sodium, high fat things.”
Offering healthy items is an area HACAP is working hard on improving, with an increasing amount of fresh produce filling refrigerator space at the agency’s Hiawatha warehouse. For donations, Gorkow said, they prefer cash — for every dollar donated, they can purchase $12 worth of food by buying in bulk and working with companies. Those donating non-perishable food are encouraged to choose healthy items, like fruit or vegetables in natural juices instead of in syrup. Backyard gardeners with an excess of produce are also welcome to donate.
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Lepowsky said she hopes people come away from Saturday’s event feeling they can be part of the community working to address hunger.
“We want to highlight the issues and instigate some action — whether that’s influencing policy or donating to a pantry, we’re hoping people, at whatever level they’re at, can walk away with an action,” she said.
If you go
What: Eat. Grow. Share: Fighting Food Insecurity in Linn County
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids