Staff Columnist

For Sonia's sake, let's keep our garden growing

In Iowa: Hope for the future of Feed Iowa First as tributes pour in

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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I was shocked and saddened this week by the death of Sonia Kendrick Stover, the founder of Linn County nonprofit Feed Iowa First. I met Sonia only a couple of times, but each time I was blown away by her passion, commitment and force of will.

She saw rampant hunger in our community, and she saw a solution — vast tracts of underutilized land that could be growing food — and she went after that solution, dedicating her life to it.

In writing a memorial article about her Wednesday, I was honored to speak with her husband, father and friends. I know I could have spoken to dozens of others and heard more stories than we would ever have room to print.

“Sonia had a calling from God to change this world. ... Her soul carried the wounds of a soldier, yet it was those wounds she used to care for other people’s wounds."

- Rev. Stasia Fine, New Disciples of Cedar Rapids

As news spread of her unexpected death at age 40, people flooded her Facebook page with stories, photos and memories.

They were longtime friends and passing acquaintances alike. They were people who had volunteered in her community gardens, and those who had received her donations of fresh vegetables. There were people who knew her from only an interaction or two and those who shared deep, yearslong bonds. They all told of someone who lived fiercely and cared deeply for the world around her.

It seems that, for Sonia, nearly every conversation, every interaction was a chance to spread her message. One church or business at a time, she got Linn County residents to transform 25 acres of grass into community gardens and farms.

Her vision was much larger than 25 acres, however. She told The Gazette in 2016 that to grow enough produce to adequately feed the 26,000 people in Linn County who go to bed hungry, she would need 500 acres. When she started Feed Iowa First, her father said she identified 800 acres of unplowed land owned by local churches.

She also worried about Iowa’s food security, about the dwindling number of young people interested in farming and about the percentage of our farmland dedicated to row crops for export like corn and soybeans versus the percentage dedicated to food for humans. She worried about the loss of topsoil, how we were degrading our environment and what the future holds if we don’t make changes.

“I consider her to be a truth teller. She’s a voice that stood out apart from the crowd,” said her friend, the Rev. Stasia Fine of New Disciples of Cedar Rapids. “She was a truth teller who was willing to say what was broken in our food system.”

Sonia was also a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan before returning to Iowa. She was open about her struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and about the brokenness she saw in a world at war.

She wanted to heal that world, and it must have seemed that no matter how much she gave, it was never enough.

“Sonia had a calling from God to change this world. ... Her soul carried the wounds of a soldier, yet it was those wounds she used to care for other people’s wounds,” Fine said.

One of the tributes posted to Sonia’s I saw posted online included a popular meme: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

I think that is true of Sonia, and her mission.

She may be gone, but the seeds she planted in this community will grow. Along with the tributes that have poured in have been promises to help, to honor Sonia’s memory by making sure her nonprofit keeps feeding Iowans. I hope I can revisit this story in the coming months and tell its next chapter with hope instead of sadness.

“I have hope for my children’s sake that things will change,” Sonia told The Gazette in 2016. “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.”

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

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