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Pantry organizers seeking storage for non-perishables

City not ready to commit

SOLON– The organizers of a proposed Solon-area food pantry would like to temporarily store non-perishables in the basement of the Solon Public Library.
The members of the Solon City Council did not leap to embrace the idea.
Citing concerns about possible infestation, burdens placed on library staff and the city’s lack of available storage space, the city deferred on a decision until a Feb. 1 meeting.
Solon Senior Advocates has partnered with Our Lord’s Church, St. Mary Catholic Church and Solon United Methodist Church to investigate the feasibility of a food pantry, with assistance from the Johnson County Crisis Center.
The biggest hurdle for the group is finding a permanent home for the food bank– one that is secure, heated, accessible and free.
In the meantime, the group has people willing to donate non-perishable food and would like to stockpile a reserve in anticipation of a mid-year opening.
At a Jan. 4 meeting of the council, Senior Advocates President Sandy Hanson asked whether the city would be interested in being a partner in the project by providing temporary storage and distribution at the library.
By the Jan. 11 meeting, Hanson had trimmed the request to only temporary storage, and brought Sarah Benson Witry, the Crisis Center’s Food Bank and Emergency Assistance Director, as well as members of the steering committee, to answer questions from the city council members and Mayor Cami Rasmussen.
The Crisis Center served 4,500 Johnson County families each year from its Iowa City location, Benson Witry said. “But as was perfectly clear to me driving up here tonight, it is quite a trek to get down to Iowa City for something as simple as a bag of groceries,” she said.
Best practices would suggest a rural resident should be no more than 10 miles away from a food pantry, she noted. Solon residents can receive food from either the Crisis Center or the North Liberty Food and Clothing Pantry, she added, but are more likely to use the service if it’s in town.
“In general, our county does have a problem with having pantries centralized in the more urban areas and having there be very little support for the smaller communities such as Solon,” she said.
A lot of low-income families have unreliable transportation, she added. “They don’t have gas money. they have very old, late model vehicles and they aren’t able to get regular repairs done.”
Last year, nearly two dozen Solon-area families were served by the Crisis Center’s food bank, Benson Witry said, and it’s likely referrals and word of mouth would unearth more. “We know that there were 23 families that repeatedly came down, all the way down to Iowa City, to receive food because their need was that great,” she said. Holiday meal programs by the Advocates and Table to Table identified 11 families in need through the Solon schools, and Witry said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a Solon pantry serving 50 families.
In preparation, the Crisis Center recommends building up a reserve of non-perishable food.
“This is the way we would like to include the city in our community project,” Hanson explained. “If we had a storage area, that would be step one.” Using upright shelves, a lot of food could be stored in a small space, she said. The 10-foot by 10-foot area sought from the city would store food items collected from drop sites within the community until a permanent location is found for the pantry, she added, about six months.
But Mayor Rasmussen said the city had concerns.
“We as a city are struggling for storage space, staff space and meeting space ourselves,” Rasmussen said, adding confidential records are stored in the library basement and access should be limited.
“Along with food storage, there is the potential of things that go wrong with food storage,” she cautioned. “We don’t want to see some kind of infestation problem or issues.”
The library serves a large population, she noted, and as stewards of the facility, the city has to make sure it’s taken care of. Rasmussen also questioned whether it would create additional work for library staff.
Pests and rodents are always an issue, Benson Witry said. “I’m always looking at it from the opposite standpoint, I don’t want the pests contaminating my food.”
Before food is stored, it would be checked for food safety, she said.
Hanson noted she would likely be the person bringing collected food to storage. She and Library Director Kris Brown indicated library staff would not be expected to assist.
When asked by council member Jessie Ehlinger if the churches has space for storage, Hanson replied all three churches are represented on the pantry’s governance committee, and none really have a location for storage or a distribution center.
“That’s why we came to the city, thinking maybe this is a way we could partner, and that maybe there would be a space down there,” she responded. “There are several places in town that we could rent, but again, that’s utilities, and there are some empty buildings but then there are huge cavernous spaces and nobody’s going to want to crank up their heating unit for a day a week.”
Advocate member Larry Meister indicated he had investigated the possibility of utilizing one of the temporary buildings owned by the school district, but the cost of moving a building and the cost of utilities make it less attractive.
“It doesn’t sound like we’re really ready for it yet,” said council member Steve Stange. Stange said he was not in favor of using a public building in connection with the pantry, but supported the idea.
“I believe in the program,” he said, “but I just think that for the city to house it is not where I vision that– especially when we are paying rent for other activities that the city is sponsoring.”
When Meister asked what role the city might be willing to take, Rasmussen said it was too early to tell.
“That’s a question that we can’t answer until we see exactly what the location is and what the need is. Is the need financial? Is the need to pay a utility bill? Is the need storage?” she asked. “I think our role is up in the air until more things are worked out.”
Meister queried further. “I think as the steering committee meets, one of the questions they’re going to raise at their meeting is ‘How does the council feel about this? Do we have their support?”
“The support is here, which is why this is such a difficult decision, because we lack adequate facility and space for ourselves,” Rasmussen replied. “We’re in a tough situation here, in a tough spot.”