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Growing Pains

Community pantry seeks funds to match city expansion
Jim Jedlicka, a volunteer at the North Liberty Community Pantry since 2009, bags bread loafs provided by Panera Bread. While the pantry has recently increased enlistment of volunteers to match the growing community, it emphasizes the continual need to strengthen donations leading into summer. (Photo by Cale Stelken.)

NORTH LIBERTY– With a growing population comes growing demands. And amidst the perpetual expansion of North Liberty, it’s easy to overlook a less fortunate segment of the community that could use a hand.
“We just had a really busy year,” said Executive Director of the North Liberty Community Pantry Kaila Rome. “It was an overall increase in every capacity, and we’re not seeing a sign of that stopping.”
While recent efforts to bolster volunteer assistance at the pantry have been successful, the changing of seasons combined with significant community growth also make this a critical time for donations.
Established in 1985 by First United Methodist Church in North Liberty, the pantry serves its city, as well as surrounding small towns in Johnson County. Using a client choice model, it seeks to engage lower income families in healthy eating, activities and interactions.
The pantry currently enlists a solid 160 volunteers, all of whom are a variety of ages and abilities and lend a hand anywhere from once a week to once a month. However, the funding has yet to match the recent surge in demands.
From 2014 to 2016, the numbers remained largely stagnant as the pantry served a little over 1,000 individuals. Last year, however, that increased to over 2,000, making up 645 families.
“Three years ago we were getting deliveries two to three times a week. Now we’re on a five-day-a-week schedule,” Rome said. “We were giving over 338,000 pounds of food away last year. That number just keeps growing.”
Daily pantry visits jumped from 9,041 in 2016 to 9,506 in 2017.
“Every time that we open, from 10 to noon, we’ll have 20 families come through and shop. During the evenings, we’re open three to six, and usually in those shifts, we’ll see about 40 families come through,” she reported. “So each day that we’re open is just getting busier and busier.”
For a full-fledged pantry, donations aren’t just needed for food, Rome said. The organization provides salary for three staff members and relies on basic utilities—refrigeration, in particular—as well as internet.
“Pretty close to 80 perfect of all the money that comes in goes directly to services in some capacity,” she said. “A lot of that is purchase, and a lot of it is put into efforts to getting that food in and out the door.”
The pantry is also home to a garden, now entering its fourth year. The 9,500 square-foot space (about 1/5 an acre) provides further opportunity to engage and educate the community about food production and preparation.
“We use that as a teaching and interaction space,” Rome explained. “We want people to feel comfortable and familiar with vegetables and fruits, digging in the dirt and getting to know their neighbors, and it’s open to everybody. So it’s an equal playing field, if you will.”
While donations are essential to keeping the pantry functioning year-round, Rome said it experiences a lot of peaks and valleys. Changes in season routinely cause a spike in utility bills, and this reverberates in a spike in pantry demand, especially the summertime. What’s more, kids who rely on free and reduced lunch or get breakfast at school are now home, requiring their families to supply additional meals.
“January through March, we’re really not seeing a lot of donations, and then summer hits­. We could have a 90 degree day in May, so families are starting to feel that financial pinch right at the beginning of the summer and we don’t have a ton of money in the bank,” Rome explained. “It always makes us a little nervous.”
“But going into those times, it’s nice for the pantry to be able to have money in the bank to purchase extra food,” she added. “To purchase extra clothing for the change of the season, to do those special distributions.”
Rome also cited concerns that recent tax legislation might change deductions and deter locals from contributing to the pantry.
“But we also find that we have a lot of really loyal donors that believe in the cause and donate whether they can write it off or not,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish is having that strong base of supporters that believe in what we do here.”
Given the pantry’s year-round needs, Roman suggested various approaches for those wishing to offer their support.
“Setting something up that is a regular donation that’s always going to be there for the high times and the low times is a great idea,” she began. Roman also suggested donating based on criteria of personal interest or specialty.
“If your passion is providing clothing for children, make a donation specified to clothing; if your passion is making sure that we have a garden program that’s always going to be there to teach the community how to garden and how to identify produce and how to eat healthy, make a contribution to the garden; if you just want us to be able to keep our lights on and continue to serve 2,000 individuals in our community, make a donation outside of those peak times to help us continue to keep the lights on and supply the food that is vital to the families that visit us; if toiletries are your thing; if you understand what it’s like to not have soap or shampoo and have to go into a job interview or have to go to school, we absolutely would designate money to purchasing toiletries or feminine hygiene products or things like that,” she said. “There’s a lot of needs that aren’t just food at the pantry that really make a big impact on the overall community.”
The executive director cited financial support allows the pantry to determine its exact needs and when space is available, thereby managing the flow of items.
“Financial donation is always the biggest need just because we have a lot of buying power with our dollars,” Roman said. “We’re able to purchase things for either wholesale really cheap and have the power to organize when we get that food. Same thing with purchasing from the food bank– we get things there for about 19¢ a pound.”
To bolster donations, the pantry holds three fundraisers a year, which Roman said takes a bit of effort. Its annual golf tournament fundraiser is scheduled for May 4.
“Our focus is to keep our community engaged in this idea that there is a need, and that the need is really similar to what everyone in the community enjoys,” she urged. “Which is healthy food, quality clothing for their children and access to recipes and information to be able to eat healthy and make their family healthy meals.”