NORTH LIBERTY– In a community as rich in commerce and growth as North Liberty, it’s hard to remember there are people here who deal with hunger and food uncertainty every day.
It’s why the North Liberty Community Food Pantry just saw a record number of visits in one month; this October brought 837 visitors to the pantry. Its previous peak was 678 visits in a single month.
It’s also why participating in the organization’s fundraisers is more important than ever before.
This year’s annual Stone Soup Supper to benefit the pantry, held Oct. 27 at South Slope Community Center, was a qualified success. Pantry director Tina DuBois said attendance increased by 15 percent over last year.
“It was wonderful to see the community come together, true to the fable,” said DuBois.
She is referring to the event’s inspiration and namesake, the Stone Soup folktale; a group of travelers come to a small town, where the villagers are wary of the strangers and so hide their food stores and pretend to have none. The travelers begin making a stew in the village commons with just a pot of water and a stone. One villager grows curious about this unusual stew, and approaches the strangers to ask about it. The travelers tell him it will make a delicious stew, but even just a single onion for flavor would make it better, so the villager obliges the group with an onion. One by one, townspeople are drawn by curiosity and are convinced to contribute another ingredient here and there– vegetables, meat and seasonings– until a nutritious and abundant pot of stew is made and enjoyed by everyone.
The North Liberty Pantry is operated on the same concept; if everyone contributes just a little, it adds up to a lot that can be shared among many.
The folk tale has been the theme for the pantry’s annual Stone Soup supper for the last four years. Contributors include local businesses and individuals who donate the venue and items for a silent auction, chefs who make and serve various kinds of soup, church members and volunteers who help provide baked goods, breads and beverages, and organizations who provide manpower to help set up, serve and clean up before, during and after the supper. This year, soup was provided by Red’s Alehouse, Bluebird Café, Kava House, Panera, Barb Dixon and Matt Zacek. Girl Scout troops and the youth group from Heartland Community Church helped serve and bus tables.
And, of course, there are the 200 patrons who bought tickets to attend the event and enjoy the simple but delicious meal. Event organizer Dawn Zacek said it aligns with the pantry’s mission of neighbors feeding neighbors.
“That is exactly what happens with the Stone Soup Supper,” said Zacek. “It’s a coming together of those who see a need. Its success each year is due to the care and support shown by the North Liberty community and our local businesses. We can’t thank everyone enough for their generosity.”
Even in months of more typical usage, the North Liberty pantry has about 620 visits, per month, which is 17 percent above 2012 averages.
“We anticipate distributing more than 200,000 pounds of food and toiletries in 2013,” DuBois said. “More elderly people are coming to the pantry. Their fixed payments are not increasing at the same rate as the cost of food.” Similarly, she said, families’ wages are not increasing at the same rate as food prices.”
In addition to the annual Stone Soup Supper, the pantry’s fundraisers include the Thanksgiving in July food drive and the Turkey Trot 5K, a race that begins and ends at the pantry site so participants can also gain understanding of the food needs in the community.
The North Liberty pantry is somewhat unique in its setup, as it allows patrons to shop for the foods they more often use, rather than just being handed a bag packed by a volunteer. Also, pantry staff and volunteers have made great effort to educate patrons about nutritional food choices and ways to use the foods available at the pantry.
“The Handy Helpers volunteer group has been busy preparing samples for pantries all year long,” DuBois said. Samples include foods made with five or fewer ingredients that are common at the pantry. “Popular dishes have included ingredients like orzo, garbanzo beans, venison, and apples. Some ingredients may not be familiar, but families and volunteers are always interested in sampling new items. The samples are hard to resist when they make the pantry smell yummy.”
Last December, the pantry opened its new building at 89 N. Jones Blvd., next to the North Liberty First United Methodist Church. The new space includes more shelves and a freezer that allows for additional food storage that was not possible before.
In the face of federal cuts to the nation’s farm bill, DuBois knows families will continue to be affected, and will struggle to fill their nutritional gaps.
“The farm bill impacts food stamps, and it also impacts many of the healthy foods the pantry receives through the government commodities program,” DuBois said. “The stress of uncertain funding and the government shutdown in October added strain to families with limited resources.”
Nationwide and locally, pantry users are far from the stereotyped images of the indigent and the homeless. The U. S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2011 that 41 percent of the 45 million persons using the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) lived in income-earning households, and only eight percent of those also received welfare incomes. Eight percent of all participants were age 60 or older, and 48 percent were children. Feeding America hunger relief organization states that in 2012, 15.9 million children and 4.8 million elderly persons over the age of 60 lived in food-insecure households, meaning they have inconsistent access to food or resources to get the nutrition necessary to a healthy life. The government’s $5 billion reduction in SNAP benefits began this month, with an average drop of $36 per month for a family of four, leaves the average SNAP recipient to live on about $1.40 per meal (CBS News).
The uncertainty of resources adds anxiety to families who are already having difficulty meeting their food and clothing needs, DuBois said. Keeping food pantries operational, through continued fundraisers, donations and volunteerism, is increasingly crucial.
“We are very grateful for the support of the entire community for helping build a space that allows us to provide essential services to the community,” DuBois said. “We will be looking at next steps beginning in 2014.”