When Hunger Calls

Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn
Photographer: Emily Blobaum

Zuli Garcia’s phone never stops beeping, even in the middle of the night. Latino families are always reaching out for guidance in navigating the pitfalls of life in this country, including poverty and food insecurity.

Garcia, 44, grew up in Southern California but moved to Des Moines 25 years ago. She quickly became known as someone who could help families in need. “If I see or hear of anyone struggling, there is no doubt in my mind to step in and help,” she says.

When the pandemic took hold last March, Garcia started hearing from more and more families in need of food. She began raising money on Facebook and through Spanish-language radio stations to fund a new organization that would feed as many people as possible, with a focus on the Latino community. Local businesses, grocery stores and restaurants—many of them Latino owned— donated food. And the nonprofit Eat Greater Des Moines provided both food and financial support.

By press time, Garcia’s organization—Latino Knock and Drop Iowa—had fed more than 5,000 families, averaging about 125 to 150 a week.

Although the organization’s volunteers originally made home deliveries, knocking and dropping the food at front doors, a local church now serves as a hub for weekly pickup.

Garcia and her volunteers divide the groceries into packages, which usually include rice, beans, tortillas, fruits, vegetables, and chicken or eggs. Garcia focuses on providing culturally appropriate ingredients, rather than canned and boxed foods her community isn’t familiar with.

Nationally, the food insecurity rate for Hispanic households is 5% higher than the average, according to the USDA. Information published only in English is one barrier to accessing resources. In addition, many immigrants are afraid that taking assistance could get them labeled as a “public charge,” making them ineligible to become permanent residents. And certain organizations won’t provide food to undocumented individuals.

This problem enrages Garcia, whose husband, Luis, was undocumented before their marriage. “Why do you need a Social Security number to receive food?” she asks. “That food was going to waste. That food was going in the trash!”

Garcia believes her altruistic nature might stem from her volatile childhood. At age 2, she immigrated to the United States from El Salvador with her mother, who soon fell into drug addiction. “I had to be a mother figure for my younger sisters,” Garcia says. “Ever since then, I’ve had the heart to help out.”

Garcia was raised by her father, who had faced hungry times himself in El Salvador. In high school, after not eating for four days, he fainted in the middle of a conversation with a teacher. After that, the teacher brought him bread and beans every day until graduation.

Her father’s journey inspired Garcia to take action when she saw a need in her own community. “I can’t save everyone, but I can at least help a percentage,” she says. “All I can do is help as much as I can.”

Knock and Drop recently became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allows them to receive grant funding. Garcia is also looking for a location to serve as a storage and pickup site. Eventually, she would like to establish a Latino Community Center in Des Moines as a “safe haven” for Iowans like her.

Founding a nonprofit during a pandemic, while also working a full-time job to pay the bills, has been a struggle for Garcia. But she draws strength from the families she serves. With tears in her eyes, Garcia recalls a message she received from a young girl.

“Before we met you, there were nights we didn’t eat,” the note said. “There were nights we would go to bed with empty stomachs. But ever since we met you, there is always food on our table.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is a yearlong initiative by dsm magazine and the Business Record to raise awareness of hunger in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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