Brucemore teams up with Feed Iowa First to help food pantries

Historic landscape manager Aaron Brewer (center) plants peppers with volunteers at the Brucemore historic estate in Ceda
Historic landscape manager Aaron Brewer (center) plants peppers with volunteers at the Brucemore historic estate in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Brucemore and Feed Iowa First teamed up to plant a produce garden for area food banks where the historic flower cutting garden used to be. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Brucemore mansion may be closed to the public, but visitors can still stroll the 26-acre grounds of the grand historic house-turned museum in Cedar Rapids.

If they do, they might notice something different this year: a large vegetable garden, being tended by volunteers who are growing produce for area food banks.

The garden is a partnership with local nonprofit Feed Iowa First, which works with private businesses, churches and homeowners to grow food on unused land.

“We thought, based on the traditions and history of the place, it would be a really good partnership,” said Brucemore Director of Facilities David Morton.

Previously, Brucemore had a smaller partnership with Feed Iowa First, growing lettuce in a raised bed. This year’s effort, on a garden plot that is about 20 by 30 feet, ramps up significantly, with herbs, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables like kohlrabi, radishes and carrots. The vegetable garden is on a spot that previously has been a flower cutting garden.

With the Brucemore house closed to the public and the normal pool of volunteers who help keep the museum running staying home, Feed Iowa First volunteers will tend the garden, with work days each Thursday. When it is harvested, it will be divided among area food pantries and distributed in neighborhoods with high rates of food insecurity.

Feed Iowa First Executive Director Carter Oswood said the coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home recommendations corresponded with a roof leak at the nonprofit’s headquarters, 1506 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids, so they temporarily suspended volunteer work days. They recently ramped those back up, however, as the planting season has gotten underway, and have weekly open shop hours from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays for volunteers who want to help process produce or prepare seedlings. They also are always looking for partners who want to grow produce on their land; people can visit to learn more.


Oswood said they’ve seen an increased interest in helping this year, a confluence of an increased interest in gardening from people staying home and increased worries about the food supply chain. That topic was particularly important to Feed Iowa First’s founder, Sonia Kendrick, who died in 2018.

“We’ve had a lot of good momentum. There’s a tremendous amount of love from the community,” Oswood said. “We’re seeing a lot of opportunity with discussions about food security. I think people are starting to pay a little bit more attention to food supply chains, and that’s really where we fit in. All the food we grow travels less than 50 miles.”

Morton said the partnership is in keeping with Brucemore’s mission of community enrichment, reflecting the vision of the previous owners, the Sinclair, Douglas and Hall families.

“Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Douglas gave quite a bit back to the community. Mrs. Hall and her in-laws started the Hall Perrine Foundation, to give grants to nonprofits,” Morton said. “Mrs. Douglas was a philanthropist and liked to help her community. Mrs. Hall wanted Brucemore to be a cultural center and a place for the community to share and use, so there’s a history of that kind of use. I think Mrs. Hall would be pleased to use part of the space to help other organizations that need it in our community.”

He said the effort feels more salient this year than ever, as record numbers of Iowans are filing for unemployment and visits to food banks are up.

“The need is going to be greater,” he said. “To be able to supply some gardens for them to grow food is a really cool venture.”

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