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Rising from the Ashes

The people of Fayette County in northeast Iowa had been generous with their Christmas donations. The Food Shelf, which provides emergency food assistance to low- and no-income residents throughout the Fayette County, closed the books on 2013 with 51,000 pounds of food in stock – enough to meet nearly a third of the anticipated need in 2014.

Karen Martin, the Fayette County Food Shelf manager, felt good when she and her staff locked up on Dec. 30, after finishing year-end reports that put the Food Shelf in the black. Then, about 9:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, her phone rang. The caller was a volunteer with the Fayette Fire Department: “Karen, the Food Shelf is on fire. We need the keys.”

By night’s end, the Food Shelf and the $50,000 worth of food inside were destroyed. Still intact: the need for food assistance.

Within a week, the Food Shelf reopened with new donations in a building about a block from its home on Water Street in downtown Fayette. A previously awarded Working Here Fund grant from Farm Credit Services of America (FCSAmerica) arrived in the mail, allowing the Food Shelf to further replenish its food stock.

The rebuilding continues more than six months after the fire. Volunteers with the local college and FCSAmerica helped to clear out the fire-ravaged Food Shelf before it was razed. The Food Shelf returned in February to Water Street, where it operates out of the Thrift Store, sales from which help stock the Food Shelf. Pancake breakfasts and donations have provided some of the money needed to build a new Food Shelf. And most encouraging to those who labor for the Food Shelf and its clients: Supporters in the community recently poured the footings for a slightly smaller but more space-efficient Food Shelf.   

Food Shelf Rebuilding CostsThe cost of rebuilding is estimated at $343,748, of which donors have committed or pledged $163,125. About $94,000 of that is for the purchase of the Thrift Store building, which survived the fire and sits next to the Food Shelf site.

On a recent afternoon, a father waited at the back of the Thrift Store while staff members filled a grocery cart so full of food that some of its contents threatened to spill out. Once the cart was wheeled to him, the man picked through the items, bagging those he and his family would use and setting aside unwanted items for the next client. Among his choices: canned and fresh fruits and vegetables, rice and bread, packaged meal helpers, breakfast cereal and milk, a variety of meats, ice cream, essential toiletries, flour and other baking essentials – just about everything he would be able to select at the nearby grocery store, if he had money to spend.

In all, clients take home 79 pounds of food for each person in their family. Karen says she and her staff try to put themselves in the clients’ shoes when filling carts – What would their families want to eat, what items are essential yet so costly as to be a luxury?  Last year, the pantry served 2,000 people, filling their grocery carts with 183,000 pounds of food.

The goal, Karen says, is to give people what they need to get back on their feet: “We want to be a hand up, not a handout.” The numbers show the Food Shelf is just that; only 10 percent are repeat clients. More telling are Karen’s conversations with past clients.

 “You’d be surprised how many come back and say how we saved them,” Karen says. “One woman came in and told me, ‘You saved me and now I want to save others.’ She left an envelope with $1,000 inside. Just a year earlier, she needed our help.”

Karen wants that same self-sufficiency for the Food Shelf. Key to her plan is building enough storage space that she no longer has to re-donate truckloads of items given to the Thrift Store. If she could store items until they could be moved to the Thrift Store floor, she would have that much more sales money to keep up with the Food Shelf’s annual increase in demand; need has risen as much as 25 and 35 percent in each of two recent years. But storage will have to wait for phase three of the Food Shelf’s rebuilding plan.

For now, she says, she’s depending on the goodwill and building donations of people who want to do their part to help Fayette County’s less fortunate – including those who were once among them.


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