During her service in Afghanistan, Sonia Kendrick saw starving people dig through rancid garbage, run across minefields to reach supply trucks and otherwise risk their lives for food.
With those images embedded in her mind, the 34-year-old Army veteran is embarking on a mission of her own that focuses on feeding those closer to home.
Feed Iowa First is the brainchild of Kendrick, who lives in Cedar Rapids and has been commuting to Ames, where she is earning an agronomy degree from Iowa State University.
“I’ve been around enough to see what societies are like when people don’t have access to food,” Kendrick said. “They’ll do whatever it takes. That’s a big part of the problem in the Middle East — the hunger.”
Kendrick has done her homework.
She noted that 90,000 households in Iowa, or 340,000 people, are considered food insecure, with limited access to safe and nutritious foods.
“We stand on the best soil in the world,” Kendrick said. “There’s no reason anyone should go hungry here.”
Her concept would use acres upon acres of green space surrounding Cedar Rapids churches — ISU is documenting how much exists — to start vegetable gardens, with harvests donated to local food pantries to feed the hungry.
Kendrick operated a pilot project last year at The Alliance Church, 1622 42nd St. NE.
More than 2,000 pounds of carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables she grew were donated to the church’s Abundance of Love Food Pantry.
Kendrick wants her soon-to-be non-profit to go beyond that goal by cultivating new vegetable farmers. In the coming year, she hopes to expand the garden and find an aspiring farmer who would earn a living wage and garden the new plot, under Kendrick’s guidance.
To do that, Kendrick is starting to fundraise for Feed Iowa First.
She noted that beginning farmers face multiple challenges in Iowa.
The cost of land is at record highs, but to qualify for a low-interest Farm Service Agency, or FSA, loan they must prove management experience and three years of profit.
Donation records kept by Feed Iowa First would count toward those requirements, Kendrick said. Each year, a new farmer would be trained and those farmers, in turn, would train volunteers to tend gardens at other churches.
Benefits would be twofold: feeding the hungry and developing new vegetable farmers.
Iowa imports more than 85 percent of its food, Kendrick noted, which ties the cost of food directly to the cost of fuel.
With the global population hitting 7 billion last year, competition for fuel and food will only continue to increase, she said.
Dora Bopp, resource development coordinator at HACAP in Cedar Rapids, said food pantries welcome fresh produce, which offers a healthy option for people in need.
BUDS Community Garden Network, which Bopp coordinates, and HACAP Food Reservoir launched a local Plant a Row for the Hungry program last year that yielded 6,650 pounds of donated produce. Bopp cited a need for more.
“Cost is a huge barrier,” she said.
Alliance Pastor Al Biere called Kendrick’s work “extremely positive.” Much of what the pantry offers is canned or boxed foods, he noted.“This was the first year we were able to offer fresh produce on a consistent basis,” Biere said. “This was a tremendous blessing."