People & Places

Striving to heal one meal at a time: Founder of Feed Iowa First dies at age 40

Sonia Kendrick Stover was advocate, veteran

Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First, plants Swiss chard on May 10, 2016, in a garden next to the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids. The 40-year-old founder of the Feed Iowa First nonprofit died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 40. (The Gazette)
Sonia Kendrick, founder of Feed Iowa First, plants Swiss chard on May 10, 2016, in a garden next to the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids. The 40-year-old founder of the Feed Iowa First nonprofit died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 40. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — If the Rev. Stasia Fine was going to sum up her friend Sonia Kendrick Stover, it would be with the story of a flash flood.

A newly planted garden on land owned by New Disciples of Cedar Rapids church was swamped and quickly overgrown with weeds. When Fine and Stover arrived at the garden, prepared for a mess, they found immigrants from East Africa who lived nearby eagerly picking the amaranth that had overtaken the other seedlings. The women explained that what Iowans see as a weed was a plant they were missing from their homeland.

“Sonia looked at me and said, ‘God wanted these weeds here because people needed them,’ ” Fine said. “She could see that the weeds were a gift from God to feed a need that existed. That was kind of her view of life. Things would happen, and she would be able to see how that change could end up being for the better.”

Finding a way to make the world better was the driving force behind Stover’s life, a life cut short this week when the founder of Linn County nonprofit Feed Iowa First died unexpectedly Tuesday.

Sonia Stover, known as Sonia Kendrick until she married Matthew Stover in December, was 40 years old. She graduated from Kennedy High School in 1995 before serving in the U.S. Army for three years and the National Guard for eight, including a tour in Afghanistan.

What she saw there impacted her deeply.

“Her experience as a veteran showed her that hunger contributed to lack of peace around the world,” Fine said. “She believed that if people were well fed, that would contribute to bringing about peace.”

Stover also was impacted by her experiences after returning from Afghanistan and struggling to feed her two children with help from local food pantries. She wanted to see more access to fresh produce, a goal she believed Iowans could make happen.

She founded Feed Iowa First in 2011, convincing area businesses, churches and individuals to contribute land, labor and seeds to her vision. Around 25 acres of previously underutilized land now grows produce for area food banks, as well as for the “Fresh Revolution” bus Stover bought to deliver free fresh vegetables around the city.

“She was an amazing advocate, not just for hungry Iowans but for veterans and also sustainable agriculture,” said state Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids. “She was looking at how can we be sustainable within our own community, within Linn County. She really challenged people. She said, ‘Even though these are big problems, let’s come up with big solutions.’”

Stover studied agronomy at Iowa State University and walked 100 miles to her graduation in Ames to raise money for her nonprofit, then went on to earn a master’s degree in sustainable organic food systems from Green Mountain College. In 2014, the documentary “Terra Firma,” about female veterans in farming, featured her, the same year she was honored by the White House as a “Women Veteran Leader Champion of Change.”

Supporting other veterans was important to her, her father, Bob Malone, said. She spoke frankly about her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and her father said he believed that contributed to her death.

“She was always in contact with other veterans,” he said. “It was very important to her to help them fight their demons, and teaching people to farm to help them fight their demons.”

Matthew Stover said his wife never took a salary from Feed Iowa First, preferring to give as much away as she could.

“Sonia was a martyr. She passed away unexpectedly, but she was a martyr. She was a warrior. She was the truth,” he said.

An interfaith service will begin at 2:15 p.m. Friday at the Avacentre at Brosh Chapel, 2121 Bowling St. SW, Cedar Rapids, with burial in the Muslim National Cemetery, with full military rites at 3:30 p.m. A celebration of life gathering will follow at the Avacenter from 4 to 7 p.m.

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In lieu of flowers, people are encouraged to donate to Feed Iowa First, the Freedom Foundation or another organization that provides support for veterans or food-insecure Iowans.

Those who would like to help keep Feed Iowa First going can contact the organization’s board at feediowa1st.com. Johnson County Supervisor Kurt Michael Friese also has created a Google document and posted it on Facebook for people to sign up to offer support.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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