July 7, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Iowa in March and emergency closures triggered unemployment, Grinnell residents began discussing how they could help fellow townspeople in need. Those discussions quickly resulted in formation of the Grinnell Food Coalition, a public-private church partnership which is now regularly providing vouchers and information to people who need those resources.

Joe Bagnoli, an early coalition member, explains that unemployment in Poweshiek County went from 3.4 percent in early March to at least ten percent a month later, leaving an estimated 500 families in the county with reduced or no income.

Coalition volunteers began meeting weekly, discussing what help could be provided and how it could be provided while launching a fundraiser campaign to fund that help. Recognizing that existing programs in Grinnell already provide assistance to those in need, the coalition decided on three main focuses.

The coalition’s mainstay program is providing bi-weekly food vouchers to families who ask for the help, for example mailing $90 in vouchers every other week to any family of four who has requested help. The amount of vouchers mailed to a family is determined by the number of people in the household and is intended as a supplement to the household’s other resources.

Bagnoli explains that vouchers can be used at Fareway, Hy-Vee and McNally’s in Grinnell, at the Grinnell Farmers Market and on the Local Food Connection where producers offer food they have grown for sale. The vouchers, he notes, enable families to choose where they shop and what they buy while keeping the dollars in Grinnell supporting local businesses.

The coalition to date has raised almost $100,000, $25,000 from a grant to the City of Grinnell from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds administered by the Iowa Economic Development Authority. The rest of the contributions, Bagnoli says, have come, most in small amounts, from Grinnell area citizens.

Nearly 100 families are receiving the bi-weekly vouchers with almost 300 individuals in those households. Bagnoli estimates that the coalition mails around $7,500 in vouchers every two weeks and can continue to serve those 100 families through the rest of 2020.

The coalition’s second focus is continuing to look for additional families which can benefit from food vouchers.

“We’re continually working to broaden our appeal,” Bagnoli explains. “There are people who don’t realize they would be among those who might qualify for vouchers. They have never needed to reach out for help before. Now they have lost their job or are laid off and have a limited income and are worried about bills and wondering what resources might be available for them. Well, we have something for you.”

The coalition developed a simple flier and has distributed fliers along with several $10 vouchers in several ways. All those who pick up or revise the school’s “grab and go” meals for kids have received fliers along with the meals. Those who pick up meals at the Methodist Church’s Blessed Community Meal have received fliers.

The coalition has also designated a number of people as coalition ambassadors , people who regularly work with families who may need help. Ambassadors have supplies of fliers and vouchers they can hand to families while explaining the ongoing voucher program. Bagnoli says around $32,000 in vouchers has been distributed along with fliers informing families about the program. Posters with information about the voucher program have been placed in store windows around town, inviting those who may need help to contact the coalition.

“At first we were trying to go to June 1 with help,” Bagnoli comments. “What has become very clear to us since that time is that this is not a candidate for short-term fix, so we are expanding our efforts to serve a greater number of families who find themselves affected by this and welcoming participation of their neighbors who would like to support them.”

“We believe there are more families than we are serving who have need, and we’re eager to know who they are,” Bagnoli continues. “As we are able to generate additional support, we will be able to provide for more families.”

While focusing mainly on vouchers, coalition members concluded that the pandemic created need for people not accustomed to seeking help, including the need for mental health services, financial planning, rent relief and utility relief. The coalition created and published a resource guide for all the local resources for those services and availability of the giving garden and the programs offered by Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA).

The recourse list can be viewed on the Ahrens Foundation web site at www.ahrensfamilyfoundation.org. The first printing of the guide has been given away, and a second printing is planned.

Organizations initially supporting the Grinnell Food Coalition include the Claude W. and Dolly Ahrens Foundation, MICA, Imagine Grinnell, Tiger Packs, Local Food Connection, Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce, Grinnell College, Drake Community Library, the Grinnell school district and many local churches.

Members of the Grinnell Food Coalition who continue to meet weekly include Joe Bagnoli, Delphina Baumann, Julie Buamann, Monica Chavez, Jenifer Cogley, Mindy Clayton, Shannon Fitzgerald, Jennifer Jacobson, Meg Jones Bair, Rachael Kinnick, Kristen Klepfer, Carry Nachazel, Karen Neal, Susan Sanning, Deanna Shorb, Laurel Tuggle Lacina, and Kendra Vincent. Bagnoli says new members interested in joining the coalition are always welcome.

Those wanting to request vouchers can contact the coalition and answer a few simple questions. The coalition can be reached at 641-236-5518, extension 109, or localresources@ahrensfamilyfoundation.org

Those interested in making tax-deductible donations to Grinnell Food Coalition can do so online at the Ahrens Family Foundation website www.ahrensfamilyfoundation.org or by mailing a check to Grinnell Food Coalition, P.O. Box 284, Grinnell, Iowa, 50112.