There were days after her friend Sonia Kendrick Stover died that Lynette Richards wondered if she and a core group of dedicated volunteers would be able to keep Stover’s vision of feeding the hungry of Linn County going.
Stover, an Afghanistan War veteran who founded the Linn County nonprofit Feed Iowa First, died suddenly in March at age 40. Her friends and supporters were determined that her mission of growing produce for those in need, something she had poured years of energy, sweat and toil into, not die with her.
But that was easier said than done. In the previous year, Stover had overseen the planting, harvesting, processing and distribution of 33,000 pounds of food — a $180,000 market value. That was in addition to working with donors and the businesses and landowners who dedicated space for Feed Iowa First’s gardens, marshaling volunteers and juggling the other logistics of running a nonprofit, from maintaining the vegetable delivery bus to filing paperwork. The organization had no staff; though Stover did the work full-time, she didn’t draw a salary.
“You just don’t realize how many people it takes to learn and accomplish what one passionate woman did. She lived and breathed it,” Richards said. “We realized we each knew a little piece, but we didn’t know the big picture.”
She recalled an day in early spring when they were faced with 50,000 seedlings, spread over ten sites, that needed to be transplanted. It was daunting and felt like an impossibly task.
But stopping wasn’t an option. The group believed in Stover’s vision, and carrying on her mission was a way of honoring her and keeping her spirit alive. Hundreds of people signed up to help, along with the nonprofit’s seven member board of directors and members of Stover’s family.
“To make sure that vision continues, it was a no brainer,” volunteer Kristine Chiafos said. “It’s a great example of, ‘We’re all in this together. When we’re doing well, we have an obligation to use our tools to make life better for those without the tools,”
Richards took on the role of acting director, though she wears the title somewhat reluctantly. Retired from her job as a guidance counselor at Metro High School and a former board member of Iowa City’s Table to Table, she had been interested in food insecurity for years when she met Stover.
“I was a very enthusiastic volunteer who loved what I did,” she said. “There was a need for someone who loved the organization and knew what we did. It fell into my lap.”
She started applying for grants, which helped fund a minimal stipend for two part-time helpers. Volunteer Jane Melloy facilitated a loan for a new delivery van after the formerly used veggie bus continued breaking down. The fundraiser to pay off that loan is ongoing. The van, which they converted by replacing the back seats with vegetable bins, helps ferry produce from their 23 urban farms and five rural partners to area food pantries, soup kitchens and sometimes directly to the people who need it.
“This is Cedar Rapids people planting, growing and reaping our gardens for Cedar Rapids people. We’re taking care of our neighbors,” Melloy said.
She talked about just how great the need is; Stover often repeated a statistic that 26,000 people in Linn County go to bed hungry. She’s seen evidence of the need firsthand, when she parks the veggie van in parks and outside apartment buildings around town and open the doors for anyone to take produce.
She also repeated Stover’s mantra that with enough dedication and effort, Iowans could grow their way out of the problem of chronic hunger and food insecurity.
“I just believe there is enough. There is enough food for everyone. It’s the distribution that’s the problem. No one should be going to bed hungry. If I can be part of solving that, I want to be,” Richards said.
This month, they got a big break; they were awarded two AmeriCorps Vista volunteers to work with Feed Iowa First full-time for the next year.
“Food justice has been a focus of mine since I went to college,” said Vista volunteer August Stolba. “I like the no nonsense approach to food justice. It really is about feeding people first and not worrying about making money.”
Richards agreed, saying they don’t ask for income verification or put limits on how often people access their food, something many pantries do.
“It’s important to be able to give the food away such that there aren’t any restrictions on who can get the food,” she said. “People get so excited it was grown for them, It wasn’t what was left and dying at the grocery store. They’re treated with dignity and respect.”
They are looking to the future. Stolba’s goal is to raise enough money, through grants and fundraising, to provide a salary to a full-time director. Richards wonders about strategic partnerships with other organizations with similar goals who may be able to take on some of the administrative duties, or even merge with Feed Iowa First completely.
On a Wednesday night, a small group gathered at Lily Acres farm in Central City. Lily Acres is less of a farm than an acreage. When Sara Kelley and her husband bought it a year ago, they wanted to use some of their land to support Feed Iowa First.
“Sonia was a motivational person. She made you want to do better,” Kelley said.
So she and other volunteers from Kelley’s office at engineering firm NV5 worked together to plant onions. Now they are processing the harvest — about 24,000 onions, which translates to just over 2,000 pounds. Those were added to the year’s total — so far they’ve grown 12,000 pounds of food, with many of the heaviest crops still to come in. They haven’t met Stover’s efforts from last year yet, but they’re working toward it.
“I think she’d be proud of us,” Richards said. “Our goal was 20,000 pounds this year. I’m sure we’ll reach that.”
The volunteers were trimming the onion’s ends and removing the outermost layer of skin before they could be loaded on the veggie van and distributed..
“It just seems like something that’s so easy. You grow something and do something good,” Kelley said. “It’s work, but we put in some effort and come up with something great.”
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• Events including volunteer days and fundraisers are posted at facebook.com/FeedIowaFirst. Here are two upcoming events:
• Onion and garlic party: Help process the onion and garlic harvest, 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, at the Feed Iowa First Shop, 1506 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids. Everyone is welcome and will be rewarded with an onion and garlic for their work. If possible, bring chairs, garden sheers or scissors to use and share.
• Harvesting Hope to Seed the Future fall fundraiser: 6 p.m. Nov. 3, Horizons, 819 Fifth St. SE, Cedar Rapids, $50. Event includes local food grown by friends of Stover. Horizon’s gardens will be dedicated in Stover’s name.