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Busier than ever

NL Pantry sets records in 2019
North Liberty Community Pantry volunteer Bob Housel smiles as he helps a family gather socks, underwear and toiletries during the second annual Back 2 School Bash Friday, Aug. 16, 2019, at Penn Meadows Park in North Liberty. Over 550 area students’ families were provided with new shoes, backpacks, toiletries, socks and underwear, school supplies, groceries and haircuts during the afternoon event.

NORTH LIBERTY– 2019 was a record-setting year for the North Liberty Community Pantry, according to Executive Director Kaila Rome.
“It was the first year we gave out over 400,000 pounds of food, and it was the first time we had over 10,000 visits,” she said.
To be exact, it was 427,000 pounds, and 10,591 visits, an increase of about 1,000 visits over 2018’s tally.
“We served 763 families, an increase of 6 percent, so we’re seeing the need has definitely gone up,” Rome said.
Many of those visits were from people who had never turned to a pantry for help before, she added.
“2019 was an especially rough year for people living in North Liberty and even in the surrounding towns we serve (including Tiffin and Oxford),” she said. One contributing factor, Rome and her staff think, was the sudden increase in lot rent at the Golfview Mobile Home Park in North Liberty. Residents of that manufactured housing community saw a 63 percent increase after a new owner took over.
“That’s made it really tight for people on a fixed income,” she said. Also, the Tiffin Pantry (on the campus of the Clear Creek Amana Middle and High Schools) was closed down completely over the summer, causing their families to go to North Liberty. Also, the pantry is low-barrier in regards to income levels and encourages people to take as much as they need. “There’s not a lot of limits on things,” Rome said. “We do a lot of work ahead of time to make sure we have enough food to keep our shelves full.”
Keeping the pantry well-stocked means working in partnership with local farmers to keep fresh produce on hand, for example.
Even with a strong economy and historically low unemployment, economic factors come into play regarding pantry visits. North Liberty, and Johnson County in general, is an expensive place to live, and as Rome noted, wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living. Over 85 percent of pantry users indicate they are working either full-time, part-time or multiple part-time jobs. “That’s a stereotype people might have, or that you might hear, that people who use food pantries aren’t working,” she said. “But a lot more than half of our families are working, and it just isn’t enough to keep up with some of those lot rents or utility costs.”
The cost of childcare is also especially burdensome, which can lead to pantry visits as well. “It’s a trade off, either you can go to work fulltime, and your entire paycheck goes to daycare, or you maybe try to piece together different jobs so you can stay home with your kids,” she said.
Speaking of kids, the pantry partnered with several other organizations for the second annual Back 2 School Bash, which provided backpacks, shoes, toiletries, socks, underwear, a sack of groceries, school supplies and a haircut to 557 North Liberty kids. “We served another record number of kids, and our in-house distribution of toiletries, socks and underwear gave out over 5,000 items,” Rome noted.
Pantry staff and volunteers survey participants about what they want and need, and toiletries always makes the list, she said. “It’s just that additional expense that when money is tight, you still need to have clean hair, and clean clothes, and to be able to be presentable,” she said. “So those are things we make a special effort to carry.”
2019 was also the first year the pantry made a major effort toward community food drives with various themes. While not a food item, toilet paper is always in demand, and something that goes out the door with every visit. “We started ‘Roll Into Spring’ last March and encouraged people to do toilet paper drives,” Rome said. The effort was successful, and will be repeated this spring with the hopes even more people, groups and businesses will join in.
A Women’s Health Month was held in May in an effort to bring in more feminine hygiene products, which are inexplicably considered a “luxury item,” and cannot be purchased with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) benefits. Also, the Pantry continues to work with state legislatures to get rid of a tax on such products.
“We chose to be bold and use the word ‘period,’ because when people shy away from it, it becomes a hidden need, nobody talks about it, nobody asks for those products,” she said. “And then, people don’t know to donate those products.”
In addition to purchasing food, the pantry staff and volunteers also grew 1,254 pounds of produce from fruits to vegetables in its garden. “Amanda Vincent is our garden coordinator, and it was her first full season from start to finish, so she was able to plan, and she did a really great job of planting, harvesting, replanting, and harvesting again,” Rome noted. Some of the produce grown was by request of pantry users, including specialty hot peppers, she said. Families were taught how to grow their own food through container gardening classes, which not only provided a nutritious boost to their diets, but also gave them some self-reliance.
The pantry had another good year in fundraising through events such as a golf tournament, Turkey Trot run, and the Stone Soup Supper. However, individual monetary donations dropped off a little from past years. Rome could only speculate that perhaps changes in the tax laws regarding charitable donations were a factor in the decline. “Overall we saw a lot more younger donors donating online, so a lot more people who maybe have never interacted with the pantry donated through our Facebook page, or through our online platform.”
The community has come through time and time again for the pantry, not only financially, but also in answering the call when shelves went bare. Due to a fluke, the pantry ran out of peanut butter (a vital source of protein) and soup. “We put a call out on Facebook, and within a day, over a thousand pounds of peanut butter and soup showed up. The community responded immediately, and they are super, super supportive. It was a hard position to be in, but it was so amazing to see the community respond. We know that if we’re really struggling, we can put that call out. This is our 35th anniversary year, and I think we’ve definitely shown that we’re responsible with those donations, and that they go to a good place.”
While trade embargos with China caused hardship for agriculture, organizations like the pantry ended up benefiting as the USDA purchased agricultural products originally destined for China, and distributed them to food pantries. With the recent signing of a “Phase One” deal with the Chinese, and the likelihood of additional trade deals on the horizon, Rome said the windfall would be ending soon. In general, only a very small percentage of the pantry’s food comes from government sources. And, the only governmental financial aid received is through the City of North Liberty.
The North Liberty Community Pantry is a low-barrier pantry, which essentially means “There’s not a lot of paperwork, we try not to be invasive, and anyone who walks in the door, if they express a need for food, we’re going to give them food,” Rome said. Pantry staff does not perform background checks on users, she said, “Because we trust that folks that come in here are in need.”
People new to using the pantry are asked to fill out one sheet of paper, which asks about their income bracket and if they are utilizing any government funded programs such as SNAP or free and reduced lunch. “Then they sign their name and put down their address, and we have to keep it on file for seven years (in case of an audit),” she noted. The form is kept confidential, and not shared with any other entity.
“It’s not a huge amount of paperwork, but it is asking somebody to put down on paper how much money they’re making,” she said. “To us, it doesn’t matter because on paper your story could be so much different than what it is in real life.”
The staff also specializes in connecting people with additional resources, when needed. “If there is a higher need (than what the pantry can provide) then we want to make sure they’re getting all their needs met, even if it’s not through us,” Rome added.
Quite frequently, people who have received help from the pantry come back later bearing donations or to volunteer. “We love those stories, and it happens all the time,” she said. And some who volunteer either turn to the pantry for help, or volunteer because they are receiving help. In all cases, Rome said, “This place is meant to be for everybody in the community, not just for people who are in need, but also people who have a need to donate, a need to donate their time, donate their talents, you can be anywhere on the spectrum at the pantry, and we want everybody to feel welcome.”
Currently 228 people volunteer their time to the pantry. “The busier we get, the more people we need,” Rome said. “But also, the larger the community grows, the more places they’re looking to plug in.” Shifts that used to have three volunteers now routinely see an average of seven per shift. And Rome is always looking for more. The volunteers perform a wide range of duties from stocking shelves, to cleaning, to picking up donations, to name just a few.
Overall, Rome said, “Big upward trend, we had some really, really busy weeks. We used to average about 200 families per week and we’re getting close to 300.”

North Liberty Community Pantry
Shopping Hours
Monday 10:00 a.m. –noon
Tuesday 10 a.m. - noon, and 3 p.m. -6 p.m.
Wednesday 10 a.m. – noon
Thursday 10 a.m. – noon, and 3 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. – noon
Donation Hours
Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Top 10 Needs
1) Financial Donations ($1 can purchase 4 lbs. of food)
2) Canned Meats
3) Beans (canned or dried)
4) Tomato products
5) Fruits – canned or 100% fruit juices
6) Canned Vegetables
7) Pasta & Rice
8) Soap, Shampoo, & Conditioner
9) Feminine Hygiene Products
10) Toilet Paper