CEDAR RAPIDS — On the first day of spring, volunteers and supporters gathered in the Feed Iowa First workshop in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood and pressed seeds into soil.
They planted heirloom vegetables and flowers with names like Red Marietta marigolds, White Vienna kohlrabi, Old Timey Blue collards and King of the North peppers. Seeds like these come with stories, carefully handed down by generations of backyard gardeners and vegetable farmers.
They tell a story of continuity and abundance and growth. Though the people who originally cultivated these varieties may be long gone, each harvest yields more seeds and what they planted keeps growing into the future, keeps providing food for decades and even centuries to come.
I kept thinking about that on Wednesday, which along with the first day of spring marked one year since Feed Iowa First founder Sonia Kendrick Stover died. The seedlings planted at the workshop were part of a memorial gathering in her honor; later, they will be transplanted to community gardens around Cedar Rapids.
Sonia’s passionate life’s work was feeding the hungry and caring for the earth. A combat veteran who experienced the difficulties of feeding her own family when she returned from war, she understood that going to bed hungry is a reality for countless Iowans. She also understood Iowa has the land to feed our hungry citizens, if only we have the will to do so.
To that end, she convinced churches and businesses and citizens to turn unused patches of grass on their properties into gardens, and to give the produce to anyone who needed it.
To meet her was to catch the fire of her passion. She talked about it to everyone she met, always seeking to recruit them to her cause.
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Eric Wallner, who is now the volunteer administrative officer for the nonprofit, was one such recruit. He was weeding a community garden plot in 2017 when Sonia stopped there and he asked her about one of her tattoos. He quickly found himself in a much deeper conversation.
“She started educating me on food insecurity, and soon I started volunteering,” he said.
At the memorial gathering Wednesday, he gestured at the trays of soil and seed packets.
“It’s simple but symbolic,” he said. “It’s just a way of demonstrating what a packet of seeds can turn into. A $5 packet of seeds can turn into $8,000 worth of produce.”
To put that concept poetically, Feed Iowa First acting director Lynette Richards repeated a mantra Sonia was fond of: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
In other words, Sonia is gone but what she planted continues to grow.
The board of directors and a core group of volunteers have kept Feed Iowa First going in the year since her death and have worked to make the organization even stronger. AmeriCorps volunteers August Stolba and Anne Langebartels, who have been working with Feed Iowa First for the last seven months, have been vital to those efforts.
“The winter took a lot of organizing and fundraising to get to the place we’re at now,” Langebartels said. “We had a lot of ‘coming together’ meetings with the board.”
The organization recently started open volunteer days. From 4 to 7 p.m. each Tuesday, people can visit the shop, 1506 10th St. SE, to help with seedlings and planting preparation. Soon, it’ll have volunteer field days, which will be announced on Facebook, to transplant those seedlings and begin caring for the gardens scattered across town.
Organizers also will be selling “salsa kits” — four packs of seedlings with tomatoes, cilantro, and sweet and hot peppers — at local Hy-Vee garden centers and at the May 4 Indian Creek Nature Center’s plant sale. Proceeds will go into supporting the mission. It’s just one of the fundraising efforts they’ve grown in the last year.
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“We’re still learning, there’s still a lot to learn, but I feel like we’re stable. We have a sense of direction. We feel we’re in a good space,” Richards said.
Last year, they grew and donated 20,000 pounds of food. This year, Richards said they’re aiming for 25,0000 to 30,000 pounds.
The atmosphere at the memorial Wednesday wasn’t sad. It was hopeful. Spring is in the air, and Sonia’s mission continues.
“When Sonia died, a lot of people thought we would wither on the vine,” Wallner said.
They haven’t. And I’m reminded that even from tragedies, strong things can grow.
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