By Elaine Garrison
Community of Christ’s affiliated university, Graceland, is a financial highlight of the city where it is located, Lamoni, Iowa, USA. The school’s salaries and the money spent by students provide an economic footing. Otherwise, the county that surrounds both, Decatur, is one of the state’s poorest.
The 2022 US Census shows an average per capita income of $24,074 USD, with 16.5 percent of the county’s population in poverty.
Recognizing the need, Lamoni’s ministerial alliance established a food pantry several years ago.
Then came Gwen Simpson, a Community of Christ member and social worker. Her family moved to Lamoni twenty-two years ago.
“I heard about this food pantry, and at the time the local churches ran the food pantry, and it went from church to church every few years. They’d collect food from local churches, and that would be in the kitchen of the churches. They’d have a few cabinets, and when somebody called from the community and said, ‘I have a need,’ the pastor would meet them and give them a few bags of whatever food they had at the time.”
After retiring, she was at a ministerial alliance meeting, representing her pastor and congregation, when she offered to help move the food pantry from a Baptist church kitchen to the kitchen at a Methodist church.
Simpson then started volunteering at the pantry. She soon recognized a need to let the people receiving food select what they needed from supplies on hand. Those receiving help maintained a bit of their dignity.
“We’ve come a way,” Simpson said of her fifteen years at the pantry. When she started, the pantry saw six families that month. In November, eighty-three families got help. Last year, fifty people, many of them Community of Christ members, volunteered in one way or another.
I had one church lady say to me early on, ‘Why, I didn’t know there were hungry people here.’ Now, I just think there’s got to be a disconnect, and maybe that’s middle-class privilege, that [in] the poorest county in Iowa, that you didn’t realize there were poor people who needed food.
From prayers to monthly offerings to serving on the board of directors, church members are important to the pantry operation. It’s not formally attached to any one church, which has helped with funding.
“The town really didn’t know much about it outside the churches, and so we decided we would write for nonprofit status. We did that, and we became our own entity, separated from any one church,” Simpson said.
The next issue was accessibility. The Methodist church location had, as there are at many churches, very steep stairs. About 5,000 pounds of food went down those stairs every month and into the rooms occupied by the food pantry. And then back up, often needed by people who would be better served by a handicapped-accessible facility.
After a long process, the pantry found a new location on the main road through Lamoni. With $230,000 raised, the building was bought and converted to the needs of the pantry and its clients.
“We moved in last May. No stairs—unloading food with a pallet brought two feet from our door—and we carry it inside. So, it’s been an exciting year,” Simpson said. She has an assistant, and her volunteers often find a niche they enjoy, which means they’re more likely to return.
“I’ve got a group of men that comes in twice a month, and they’re just there to unload, and they stock the shelves. And when we’re open twice a week, we’ve got people that pull food from the shelves. And then we’ve got people that lift it into people’s cars. One thing we’ve changed since the very beginning, people have choice, so on our choice list…right now—and it varies—there are eighty-one choices of food.
“We have people fill out the order sheet in a bigger room, and then our volunteers pull that food off the shelf. So, it’s safe for my volunteers, which the average age is about sixty-five, and they feel safe (from COVID-19), and the clients still get the food of their choice.”
The new location has created an awareness of needs in the area.
“I had one church lady say to me early on, ‘Why, I didn’t know there were hungry people here.’ Now, I just think there’s got to be a disconnect, and maybe that’s middle-class privilege, that [in] the poorest county in Iowa, that you didn’t realize there were poor people who needed food.
We are a resource to the community in ways that we’ve never been before, or it was never possible before. That’s been one of the blessings that’s come out of this, I think, for the community.
“When I first moved here, I went to church people and said, ‘Tell me about this poorest county in Iowa,’ and they could not do that.”
The resource has attracted volunteers who donate time and money. “People want to volunteer, they want their children to volunteer,” she said. “We are a resource to the community in ways that we’ve never been before, or it was never possible before. That’s been one of the blessings that’s come out of this, I think, for the community. …Now we’re looking into a Meals on Wheels kind of a program. People come and get statistics from us. They get information that is going to help them start their own program. That’s a benefit that none of us could foresee.”
The only rule: Clients must live within Lamoni or Davis City. While the food pantry has a lot of resources, “We don’t have [enough] resources to feed the whole county, and that’s the tough part of the job.”
Clients fill out a form from the US Department of Agriculture, which collects specific information. Regardless, “If you say you need food, then you come in, and food is available to you, which is a good thing.
“We do home deliveries once a month. There are people who either don’t have a vehicle and don’t have a friend to drive them to the pantry, or they’re disabled, or they’re senior citizens.
“I learned something about myself. I don’t want to be a fundraiser. It was very uncomfortable for me. And yet, interestingly enough, when we started, we didn’t have a budget. Now, we have a money market [fund]. We have an endowment. We are very well-funded because of grants—but mainly because of churches, and private citizens, and some businesses.”
Also, a school-supply drive has become a major focus. The pantry provides vouchers to a local dollar store, again allowing recipients to select what they need for their specific situation. Teachers also benefit from this program, with cards given for classroom supplies.
“I think this was a God job. You know, I was at the right time, the right place, and I think the Spirit was willing and ready to move in me and in this community, and in the people who were not volunteers thirteen years ago.”
This article was adapted from Project Zion podcast 582 in the “What’s Brewing” series, with Carla Long interviewing Gwen Simpson, director of the Lamoni Food Pantry in Lamoni, Iowa, USA. Simpson also was interviewed by the Herald for this story.