It is a privilege to serve.
I knew this to be true when I made the decision to join the AmeriCorps Partnering to Protect Children (APPC) program in late summer 2019 and serve the communities of Benton and Iowa counties.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of my work involved building awareness of suicide prevention and increasing volunteer capacity for my host site—I was proud to serve, my goals were worthy.
But I didn’t quite get it.
Serving under a disaster declaration has shown me how much of a privilege it truly is to serve and how important APPC is to our state.
In October 2019, I assisted my site supervisor in planning, recruiting for, and hosting a Community Partnership for Protecting Children (CPPC) 101 Immersion workshop. One of our attendees was Angie Albright, Food Operations Manager at HACAP Food Reservoir
HACAP—a Feeding America member—is a community action agency serving seven counties in eastern Iowa including both counties in my service area.
I knew there was hunger in my community—I taught for four years in a local elementary school with a high percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch—but meeting Albright and learning about the work HACAP does via its monthly mobile food pantries and Operation BackPack program expanded my knowledge exponentially.
Pre-COVID-19, the child food insecure rate in Benton County was 14.9% and the Iowa County rate was 15.5%.
This amounts to more than 1,500 kids considered food insecure in my community before the current economic downturn.
Iowa’s overall child food insecure rate was estimated to be 15.3% prior to the pandemic.
There is a cost to doing nothing when it comes to food insecurity. I’ve seen it firsthand as a teacher.
According to the Food Environmental Alliance, food insecure children are more likely to exhibit tardiness, absenteeism, poor social interaction, aggression, inattentiveness; food insecure children also exhibit poorer health outcomes in general.
It makes sense—it’s hard to think clearly, to act rationally when you are hungry.
And this applies to adults as well. When you’re hungry, the tiniest things can grate on you.
And sometimes those tiniest things can become your children.
When Governor Kim Reynolds redeployed Iowa AmeriCorps members for disaster assistance on March 20, 2020, I was already in the throes of assisting my site supervisor in determining how best to help our community.
Several faith leaders and librarians had reached out to CPPC directly, asking how they could best ensure children in their communities continued to receive nutritious lunches.
Because of my host site’s working relationship with HACAP, we were able to activate quickly and assist the Marengo librarian and her local Ministerial Alliance in setting up Operation Sack Lunch—a grab and go lunch program offered outside the public library every weekday since March 13, 2020.
More than 90 lunches are served daily at the site—a small town located in a rural county. The local school district has a free or reduced price lunch eligibility of more than 37%.
The call by our governor for AmeriCorps members to redeploy to one of Iowa’s six Feeding Iowa Food Banks was an easy decision for me to make and an opportunity I felt privileged to have.
Since redeployment, I have served more than 70 hours with the HACAP Food Reservoir warehouse in Hiawatha and participated in four massive drive-thru mobile food pantries in Linn County—the labor market for many residents of my APPC service area.
I have also assisted with pop-up pantries in three of Cedar Rapid’s urban communities.
During several of the pantries in May, I worked alongside members of the U.S. Army National Guard’s Alpha Company 248th Aviation Support Battalion/Task Force Log. Their support was invaluable as we worked to get food to those who desperately needed it.
During my first few days in the HACAP warehouse, I was exhausted. It involved a lot of heavy lifting, bending, walking, and repetitive motions. But I knew how fortunate I was to be able to do the work, to serve during a disaster, to be healthy.
My interactions with those who attended our pantries were always positive.
Many would roll their windows down halfway and tell me ‘I don’t know how to do this’ or ‘I’ve never had to visit a food pantry before, please tell me what to do’.
Some had tears in their eyes.
Many attendees were veterans.
Those for whom English was not their first language would more often than not try to give me photo identification—by law no pantry that receives USDA TEFAP commodities can require photo identification. I always just shook my head no and they smiled.
So many had children bouncing around in the back seat.
I felt my primary task was to be kind. To be warm. To show them it’s okay to need help. Several people at every pantry would thank me for being kind.
I always waved and spoke to the kids in the vehicles. Ask them about their life at home, if they missed school, how they were feeling.
I never once had a caregiver rebuke this communication. More often than not they would roll the back windows down and smile while the kids chattered to me about everything and anything.
Standing in those parking lots as hundreds of cars lined up ahead of the pantries, the inequity in our country was illuminated for all to see.
But it’s important to remember that need was always there, it was just invisible to a lot of people.
Children were food insecure in my service area before COVID-19 and they will continue to be food insecure on the other side.
My own family has needed supports during this time as my husband’s hours have dwindled.
There were many mornings that I thought about not working at the food reservoir anymore, staying home, serving by telework only.
But I would remind myself as I swung my legs out of bed, feet throbbing from the long day before—it is a privilege to be healthy, to be able.
It is a privilege to serve my community and so I do.
Submitted by Ruby Bodeker, AmeriCorps Partnering to Protect Children & Benton-Iowa Decat/Community Partnership for Protecting Children