116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Stocking for a deeper purpose
Feb. 1, 2023 6:00 am
Longtime grocer now focuses on giving to others in role at Matthew 25’s Cultivate Hope Corner Store
Mark Elias is no stranger to the power of produce and the value of volunteering. He recently retired from a lifelong career in food and grocery services, and he now serves as Senior Director of Matthew 25’s Cultivate Hope Corner Store, on the corner of E Avenue and Ellis Boulevard NW.
“I was thinking about what I was going to do after I retired,” said Elias. “My wife encouraged me to think about using the gifts God has given me to do things that are more intentional toward helping other people.”
Initially, he wasn’t sure where that idea would take him. When he was discussing this with a friend, she told him that Matthew 25 had a building that the organization always intended to turn into a nonprofit grocery store — but it needed someone with the knowledge, expertise and free time to get it going. “It’s a God thing that brought us together,” said Elias.
After meeting with Matthew 25 Executive Director Clint Twedt-Ball in 2019, Elias started doing research and planning how a nonprofit grocery store might actually function.
“Our goal was to provide something accessible to the neighborhood, but also make it sustainable,” said Elias. “How can you make a little store profitable enough that you can pay employees and keep it open six days a week?”
Through partnerships with local farms, grants and sponsorships, community donations and volunteer labor they’re able to keep the lights on while selling nutritious food at affordable prices.
“It’s just a small neighborhood store where we’re trying to bring healthier food to the community,” he said. “Time Check is a food desert, so want to change that.”
The phrase “food desert” refers to any community that lacks stores that sell healthy and affordable food. “No big company would come open a grocery store here; it doesn’t make financial sense. That’s what Matthew 25 can do,” said Elias.
Food is one of Matthew 25’s mission pillars. In 2012, they established the Cultivate Hope Urban Farm, to empower Time Check kids and families to grow and eat healthy foods independently. In more recent years, they’ve been known for Groundswell, a pay-it-forward cafe focused on delivering nutritious, affordable meals to the neighborhood.
These three initiatives work in support of each other, with produce grown at the urban farm making its way onto plates at Groundswell and into shopping bags at the corner store. Implementing the pay-it-forward model at the corner store even allows them to stock a fridge with completely free produce, to help people stretch their food budgets, and encourage healthy eating.
Volunteers keep the store’s operating costs down by helping with things like cleaning, painting, unloading trucks and serving premade lunches to customers. One woman has even volunteered to take on the store’s data entry needs, and is steadily building a new system to keep the shelves strategically organized.
“That’s been fun,” said Elias, “to see the possibilities of things that we wouldn’t have time to do while running the store.”
Despite the outpouring of volunteer support, Elias said that the need for paid staff is by design: “When we talked about doing the store initially, even though we wanted to use volunteers in some respects, we knew we also wanted to employ people from this neighborhood. That’s also why we try to tie in education with our efforts — We don’t just go in and give away free food, we want to make it a complete thing that benefits the community in lots of different ways.”
That focus on wholistic community benefit and the pay-it-forward ethos is what keeps Elias coming back every day. “When people ask me, ‘Why do you use your energy for good?’ I tell them, it’s because God’s giving me those opportunities. With the gift he’s given me, I can’t help but want to do good for other people.”
Do you know someone using their energy to make our communities better? The Gazette is partnering with Alliant Energy to spotlight and share stories of people who are using their energy to make our communities better. Specific focus areas include: hunger & housing, workforce readiness, education & literacy, environmental stewardship and diversity, safety and well-being. Nominations can be made by completing the form at: https://www.alliantenergy.com/poweringbeyond