RESTAURANTS

Local restaurateur goes 'extra mile' to help area food banks in need

Workers divvy up big bags of rice in smaller, more manageable 1-pound bags Tuesday at Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City. (L
Workers divvy up big bags of rice in smaller, more manageable 1-pound bags Tuesday at Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — What does it take to divvy up 5,000 pounds of white rice into 5,000 separate 1-pound plastic bags?

Local restaurateur Matt Swift and his employees are finding out.

“It’ll be interesting to see what 5,000 bags of white rice looks like,” said Swift with a laugh.

Swift — a partner in numerous local restaurants including Big Grove, St. Burch Tavern, Pullman Bar and Diner, 30hop, BlackStone, Reds Alehouse and Mosley’s BBQ — said the restaurant industry is being “destroyed” by COVID-19. But when he heard about local food pantries needing rice, Swift not only helped secure two and a half tons of it, but also ensured its distribution — bringing in employees to help bag it in manageable packages.

“It’s good on a lot of levels,” Swift said. “We have people working and we’re bringing in a product the pantries couldn’t get right now.”

Patti Fields, vice president for community impact and engagement with the United Way of Johnson County, said the effort to help food pantries began during a meeting last Thursday when she learned those pantries were having trouble finding white rice for their clients.

“It’s one of those staples,” Fields said. “It can meet a lot of needs.”

Fields in turn brought that information to a daily emergency operations briefing related to COVID-19. When Fields shared the need of the food banks, Think Iowa City President Josh Schamberger picked up that task as something he could tackle.

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Swift said he heard from Schamberger on Friday. Within an hour, he secured the 5,000 pounds of white rice — all in 50-pound bags.

There were just a couple of problems.

First, the pantries couldn’t just hand out 50 pound bags of rice to their clients. Second, pantries can’t break down the rice into smaller portions without a commercial kitchen or a designated clean room.

Yet again, Swift stepped up.

“When this request comes through, you’ve just got to figure out how to handle it,” he said.

With space available to work at Big Grove Brewery and Taproom in Iowa City — as well as access to a forklift — Swift said he and his employees would handle divvying up the rice there. He bought 5,000 zipper lock bags and employees are filling them up one by one.

The operation began Monday with just people, but Swift said he put out an email to his employees — including some who haven’t been working — to see who wanted to join the effort. Swift said participation is voluntary, but anyone who helps will be paid.

With the restaurant industry struggling, it would be easy for an owner to pass on this task. But Swift said Big Grove is weathering the storm better than some restaurants thanks to its brewing operations.

“It’s not going to be as much of a burden for Big Grove,” he said. “It’s also the right thing to do.”

And that effort isn’t going unnoticed by the pantries. John Boller, executive director of the Coralville Community Food Pantry, said the pandemic has been rough on the operation, with the demand for food continuing while the volunteer base “shrank tremendously.” When Boller and other food pantry directors heard about the effort to get them rice, they “sighed a breath of relief,” he said.

“It’s just another thing we don’t have to deal with right now,” he said.

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Sarah Witry, director of services for CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, called Swift’s efforts to “go that extra mile” reassuring.

“It has been really inspiring the way the local business community has stepped up to collaborate with nonprofits during this time,” Witry said. “It has been really neat to see how we can all work together. ... These partnerships during this time are great.”

Witry noted that rice is used in cuisines from around the world and is in high demand at food pantries. She said at a time when people might be getting a little creative with their cooking, it will mean a lot to food bank clients to have a staple they can rely upon.

The food pantries will reimburse Swift for the cost of the rice, but it’s the collaboration that made this possible that you can’t put a price on.

“The spirit of collaboration is really getting us through these challenging times,” Boller said. “It’s really great to see and is really appreciated.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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