CEDAR RAPIDS — Bridgette Williams-Robinson has been serving free hot meals to anyone who wants them, cooked on a grill she sets up under the Interstate 380 overpass on Eighth Avenue SW, since Aug. 11, the day after the derecho devastated Cedar Rapids.
A mother of seven and small business owner, she knows she can’t do this forever. But when she contemplates stopping, she said she just can’t bring herself to.
“If you keep going until there’s no need, you’ll be here forever,” said Tara McCormally, a woman who saw the efforts on the Iowa Derecho Response Facebook page and showed up to help.
Williams-Robinson just nodded. She knows that. But she feels compelled to be here.
“It’s terrible to not know what you’re going to feed your kids every night,” she said. “I would like to take that burden off people, so they can at least have a hot meal.”
Williams-Robinson started the effort on the day after the storm, when it became clear the power wasn’t coming back anytime soon. She had a deep freezer full of meat and didn’t want it to go to waste, so she started cooking for her neighbors outside her home, which is near the underpass. The number of people who asked for a meal convinced her there was a greater need.
“When we saw how many people actually showed up, we saw people probably needed a hot meal more than once,” she said.
She and her husband, Jovountae Robinson, started buying more food. Others donated to help. Every day since then, the family has cooked as much as they could and given it away under the overpass. They run out every day.
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On Wednesday evening, the food they started serving at 3:30 p.m. — pulled pork, macaroni and cheese, sausage links and ground turkey — was almost depleted by 5 p.m. As people continued to drive or walk up, Williams-Robinson sent her husband for more supplies, telling people to come back later.
The family started out serving around 50 to 75 meals a day. On Tuesday they served more than 200.
Williams-Robinson knows firsthand what it is like to not know where your next meal is coming from; the family was homeless for a time.
“It just kind of hit home, because we had been hungry and homeless before, and we didn’t want people to feel like that,” she said. “If we can help in anyway, we are going to help.”
That period of their lives was eight years ago, before they moved to Cedar Rapids, where they found an apartment and jobs. Williams-Robinson now owns her own party planning business, Have A Blast Party’s. She also caters the events she plans.
Now, she’s struggling to figure out how to keep the business going after the totes of supplies she kept on the porch of the home the family rents blew away in the storm. She said she applied for FEMA assistance and then a Small Business Administration disaster loan, and both were denied.
She has been out under the overpass, cooking and serving the neighborhood, everyday from midafternoon into the evening every day since the storm. She planned to take a break Saturday to rest and recuperate and spend time with her family. It has not been an easy time for them since the schools sent everyone home in mid-March because of the pandemic. Her oldest child is 15 years old, and the youngest is 2.
The family spent much of the summer going to city parks, many of which are now covered with downed trees. When the storm hit, Williams-Robinson had some of the kids in the car with her, and they were driving home. They couldn’t reach their block because of downed trees, and had to leave their car behind and walk to get to their house.
She said as bigger, out-of-town organizations like Operation BBQ, Mercy Chefs and World Central Kitchen leave, it is up to local people to keep serving the community. The derecho only exacerbated financial struggles many already faced.
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So she will keep cooking, for now at least. Friends and strangers alike have helped — she takes donations through Venmo @jovountae-robinson or CashApp @haveablastpartys, and others have dropped off supplies directly at her grill. But she said she would keep doing this without the donations.
“Every day there are more and more people who come down, so the need is there,” she said. “Just because people have power back doesn’t mean they have food.”
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