In college, one of Shelley Buffalo’s friends would bring her cheese sandwiches for breakfast every morning to take the edge off her hunger and give her the energy to get out of bed. Buffalo is shown here at the Meskwaki community gardens.
Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn
Photographer: Emily Blobaum
Seeing the need in their local communities, these individuals have stepped up to fight food insecurity—working inside and outside the system, donating money and time, hosting events, founding organizations, growing food, and cooking meals.
Shelley Buffalo, Tama
Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative, Local Foods Coordinator
When Shelley Buffalo was growing up in Tama County in the early 1970s, her family shopped at the local market and butcher shop. Her mother got eggs from a neighbor down the road.
“That was an end of an era for local foods,” she says. “The local economy has been completely gutted.”
The 1980s farm crisis put farms out of business across the country, many of which were consolidated into industrial-scale operations. Native American communities like the Meskwaki were hit particularly hard by the crisis, because they had relied on local, sustainable foods for thousands of years. Buffalo links this to the current “dismal” health disparities. According to the Indian Health Service, American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy 5.5 years lower than the U.S. average.
“Because of colonization, our ancestral foods have been replaced with a lot of heavily processed foods,” Buffalo, 52, explains. “And that has impacted our tribal health.”
Food insecurity in the Meskwaki Settlement has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The meatpacking industry suffered, and the tribe’s casino was closed for three months. Buffalo believes that one solution is food sovereignty, which she describes as “regenerating our ancestral relationships with the land and with food.”
Buffalo runs the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative (MFSI), which manages about 3 acres of garden space for school outreach, Senior Services meals, and community members who don’t have their own garden space.
Other MFSI programs include a springtime Seed and Transplant Giveaway of mostly indigenous species, including corn, beans and squash. They also till personal gardens and plan to offer a fall Harvest Box of storage foods to senior citizens and families in need.
MFSI is also working with the Chicago Field Museum and with Seed Savers Exchange, based in Decorah, to reintroduce seeds of indigenous origin found in their collections. Buffalo says these projects will help bring back varieties they’ve lost due to large-scale, commercial agriculture, cultivating diversity that is essential to surviving climate change.
“In order to truly bring people back to their ancestral foods, we’ve got to get them growing again,” Buffalo says. “That activity is truly healing—and incredibly empowering.”
Working in the garden has given Buffalo the fortitude to cope with past trauma, like the systemic racism she experienced at school. One teacher refused to let her go to the bathroom, landing her in the hospital with impacted bowels. Another intentionally tripped her in the hallway.
Buffalo frequently hears trauma stories like these from other tribal members. She says gardening can help soothe that pain. Tearing up, she says: “I want to reflect something back to the community that is not trauma, that is resilience. Change the narrative to show how beautiful and resilient our people are.”
DaQuan Campbell, Waterloo
Greens to Go, Americorps VISTA
Growing up in east Waterloo, DaQuan Campbell disliked helping in his grandmother’s garden. “I never would have guessed that I would actually be trying to make a career out of this,” he says with a laugh.
As the Americorps VISTA member who manages the Greens to Go mobile produce stand, part of the University of Northern Iowa Local Food Program, the 26-year-old Campbell works to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved areas. With help from two teenage staff members, Campbell harvests seasonal produce from local farms, which is then sold to customers at stands around the city. By providing free harvesting labor to the farmers, Greens to Go gets a discount, which they pass along to their customers, many of whom have trouble finding fresh produce.
Campbell also serves as market manager for the Waterloo Urban Farmers Market, where he has increased vendor participation and customer attendance. At home, he tends his own garden.
With a degree in business management from the University of Northern Iowa, Campbell dreams of becoming a full-fledged farm producer in the next few years, scaling up his operation to meet his neighborhood’s needs.
“We really need to be focused on trying to get produce to consumers who lack the access,” he says.
Di Daniels, Storm Lake
SALUD Director and Co-Founder
The first time Di Daniels visited Storm Lake, in 2009, she waited in a grocery store line behind people from Laos, Guatemala and South Sudan. Having spent eight years living in Honduras, she was intrigued by the diverse community of 10,000.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 30% of Storm Lake residents were born outside the United States. Nearly 30 languages are spoken in the northwest Iowa town (about 25% of residents work at the Tyson Foods plant).
Daniels, 69, is fluent in Spanish and has previous experience working with different cultures.
She moved to Storm Lake in 2011 and co-founded SALUD, a multicultural organization intended to eradicate health disparities. “It’s a lofty goal,” she says with a laugh.
In 2015, motivated by troubling data on food insecurity in Buena Vista County, SALUD began hosting monthly Hunger Dialogues, where community members come together to brainstorm solutions. They also host annual food security summits.
From the Hunger Dialogues emerged a series of action-oriented programs: distributing donated garden produce, teaching container gardening to the homebound, organizing a monthly mobile food pantry with the Kiwanis Club, establishing a “you-help, you-pick” garden, and implementing food distribution at the middle and high schools. In response to the pandemic, they now offer monthly food deliveries to the homebound in collaboration with a local church.
Daniels works tirelessly to ensure participation from all the diverse populations in Storm Lake. She says Latina women are the driving force behind the organization, serving in multiple positions of leadership.
The Hunger Dialogues have raised awareness about food insecurity in Storm Lake, leading to productive conversations about how to address the systemic causes of hunger. Resolving those challenges, Daniels acknowledges, will take a while. “But in the meantime,” she says, “nobody has to go hungry while we are trying to figure this out.”
Yolanda Jefferson, Davenport
Owner, Chefy Bear on Wheels and BlckPearl Catering
Yolanda Jefferson has risked getting fired to feed the hungry. While managing a cafe at a homeless shelter, she once overheard a woman tell her daughter that it was the only food she would get that day. Jefferson loaded up the mother’s car with extras from the cafe, despite the rule against it.
“If I see a need, I immediately jump on it,” she says. “Food is love to me. When you feed somebody, you’re loving them.”
Jefferson, 49, has been feeding people in Davenport for over 20 years. A professional chef, she makes her living from BlckPearl Catering, but her passion is Chefy Bear on Wheels, a community service project she started two years ago.
Through conversations in her community, Jefferson heard about people facing illness and unemployment who couldn’t access local resources. Through Chefy Bear, Jefferson feeds between 50 and 200 people a day, cooking lunch for pickup six days out of seven. Most people need only a few weeks of free meals before they can get back on their feet.
“It doesn’t make sense that, in this country, in this day and age, people have to jump through hoops to get food,” she says. “There is too much food out here that is going to waste that needs to be in people’s stomachs.”
Jefferson receives donated food from Hy-Vee and Aldi, and community members drop off extra groceries. She won’t turn anything down, and gives away what she can’t use. She even cleans and cooks fish that people catch in the Mississippi River. She doesn’t have a regular menu but creates meals from whatever shows up. Sometimes it’s meatloaf or spaghetti. Other times turkey tetrazzini or roasted pork loin in apple glaze. For last year’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, she hosted a meal for 500.
“There’s a Catch-22 in what I do,” Jefferson says. “I am grateful that God has gifted me to serve people. But it’s hard because you know the need is so heavy.”
That load is getting heavier during the pandemic. Her catering business fell off when events were canceled en masse. Any profit she makes from BlckPearl goes straight into food for Chefy Bear. This year, she’s struggling to pay for her commercial kitchen. To save money, Jefferson lives with her mother and grandmother. Her goal is to keep feeding as many people as she can for as long as she can.
“Little old Yolanda from 11th street in Davenport has an opportunity to change a life every day,” she says.
“God knew these days were coming, and he knew he needed his strongest people in place to make sure that his people were taken care of,” Jefferson adds. “And that’s what I am here for.”
Mike Naig, Des Moines
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture
As Iowa secretary of agriculture, Mike Naig has made it a point to visit food pantries and food banks while traveling the state. What he learned on those tours became unexpectedly useful when the pandemic hit, a crisis he calls an “all-hands-on-deck” moment.
“This work was born out of two things that we really didn’t want to deal with,” says the 42-year-old Naig. The first was a processing disruption, with a backup of animals on Iowa farms. The second was growing food insecurity, with an acute need for meat.
In response, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship worked with the Iowa Pork Producers Association to create Pass the Pork, funded by the federal CARES Act and private donations. Working with small meat lockers and producers and the Iowa State University Meats Laboratory, the program delivered 50,000 pounds of processed pork to food banks by the end of July.
The department also created a similar initiative for beef, called Beef Up Iowa, in partnership with ISU and the state’s beef producers; both programs are part of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Feeding Iowans Task Force. (See “Growers Give Back” on page 54 for more on these programs.)
Naig says he is proud of meat producers, who, during a challenging time in the agriculture industry, “are thinking about what they can do to help others.”
Mary and Doug Bruce
West Des Moines
Mary and Doug Bruce, married 34 years, have spent their lives giving back to their community. Fighting food insecurity is a cause close to their hearts.
“We live in Iowa, the breadbasket of the world,” says the 67-year-old Mary. “It’s heartbreaking to see children who do not have food.”
That dichotomy is especially galling to a family whose livelihood is so closely tied to the agricultural industry. Before passing the torch to his daughter last year, Doug Bruce, 71, was the fourth-generation owner of Osmundson Manufacturing Co. in Perry, which produces tillage blades and tools.
In 2017 the Bruces were one of the top donors to an extensive $6.9 million renovation of the Food Bank of Iowa, financing the addition of a kitchen for cooking classes and a room to break down bulk food donations.
They also support the BackPack Program, which provides sacks of healthy, kid-friendly food to students every Friday during the school year. (Click here for information on how you can get involved with the program.)
Declaring that philanthropy has improved their quality of life, the Bruces encourage everyone to practice generosity in some form. “Just do it,” Mary says. “Write the check. Give your time. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount.”