Cass County groups pull together for food security during pandemic

October 23, 2020
Woman sitting in garden with basket.
Master Gardener Ardie Gillespie “grew another row” for donation to her community.

by Leigh Adcock, Communications Specialist 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the fundamental gaps in the US food system—especially for food-insecure people. But it has also prompted community groups to get creative about filling those gaps. In Cass County in southwest Iowa, residents have pooled ideas and resources to keep people fed—even providing them with fresh local produce. 

The driver for all this activity is Healthy Cass County—a community-focused coalition representing 25+ local organizations. The group formed more than 10 years ago. They meet monthly to promote the health and well-being of Cass County residents. 

Brigham Hoegh is the wellness program coordinator for Cass County Extension and serves on Healthy Cass County. 

Brigham Hoegh.
Brigham Hoegh

“We have a committed group of Healthy Cass County members who are passionate about local food and food access, and a number of other groups and organizations across the county committed to food security, including our local food policy council, and four local food pantries,” commented Hoegh. “Additionally, we have strong community support for our pantries and programs. Everyone really stepped up together this summer.”

Box of fresh fruits and vegetables.
A peek inside a Farmers to Families food box.

Wide variety of projects

Here’s an overview of some of the amazing projects going on this year in Cass County. Thanks to Brigham and county director Kate Olson for sharing! 

Grow Another Row. A team of Master Gardeners and other growers organized a produce-sharing system across the county. They asked folks to grow an extra row or two to share. From July through September local growers shared produce with neighbors at sites across the county.

Cass County COVID-19 Mobile Food for All. Funded through a grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, this program delivers food to people’s homes who need assistance due to COVID-19. Partners include Southwest Iowa Transit Agency and area grocery stores, as well as many community volunteers. The Cass County Local Food Policy Council headed up the grant. More than 190 families have used the program so far. 

Increased partnership with area food pantries. The county’s mobile food program identified people who needed food assistance from a pantry in Atlantic who do not have transportation or live within walking distance. The Atlantic Food Pantry is now delivering to 21 households as a result of this find! The pantry has also expanded services and hours.  

USDA Farmers to Families Food Boxes. The local farmers market, Produce in the Park, applied to the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. As a result, they distributed 300 boxes across Cass County in September. They plan to distribute another 400 boxes across the county at the end of October. Partners included food pantries, local churches, backpack programs, the area YMCA and an associated childcare center, retirement homes and more! 

Raised garden beds full of vegetables and flowers.
Raised community garden beds at Mollett Park in Atlantic.

Free Produce Snacks for Kids. Produce in the Park received a USDA Farm to Summer grant to provide free produce snacks to kids. They handed out snacks at the farmers market and at a park and apartment complex across town. A big part of the success of this program was a partner program. The coalition collected outdoor toys and money to purchase items to encourage kids’ physical activity (Still Having Fun- Summer 2020). Kate says, “Kids love free produce, but when you hand it to them along with a football, Frisbee or bottle of bubbles, they really get on board!” 

Food Bank for the Heartland Mobile Food Pantry. Atlantic has been doing this quarterly pantry for a few years. Last spring, the Anita Food Pantry came over to check it out. As a result, Anita hosted the mobile pantry for the county in June—success! The September pantry in Atlantic served more than 300 families (compared to the pantry’s typical 140).  

Free Egg Giveaways. Thanks to private donors, the Cass County Local Food Policy Council organized several free egg giveaways in late spring. They purchased eggs from Southwest Iowa Egg Co-op in Massena. This helped support the co-op as well as hungry families. 

Cass County Master Gardeners. The group continued their support of multiple community garden locations. They also helped county parks and rec start a first-year community garden in a low-income area of town—in a very tough year. The produce grown in the gardens was all donated through the Grow Another Row program. Master Gardeners also used some established donation networks and transport connections move around the county to meet needs and avoid waste. 

Man moving pallet of boxes with skid loader.
Volunteer Trent Cappel unloads a pallet of produce boxes at the American Legion Memorial Building.

Gratitude

Steve Pelzer volunteers with the Cumberland Care and Share pantry, a few miles southeast of Atlantic. “Brigham at Cass County Extension has been a valuable partner during this difficult time of COVID-19,” he says. “Through her efforts, we received fresh produce to pass on to our patrons. We greatly appreciate the support and communication we have received from Cass County Extension.”