Writer: Missy Keenan
Thanks to a recent $212,500 grant from the Food Bank of Iowa, Urban Dreams will be expanding its food pantry at its new 11,109-square-foot facility, a building the nonprofit recently started remodeling at 1615 Second Ave.
The new building will contain a 1,500-square-foot food pantry, a significant change from their current location at 601 Forest Ave., which only has about 1,000 total square feet—and no space to dedicate fully to the food pantry. The current pantry consists of a few shelving units and a refrigerator in the waiting room, and clients knock on the door and wait outside while a staff member puts together a bag of food for them. The new pantry will have much more storage for nonperishable and perishable food, plus diapers and other essentials, with plenty of room for clients to enter the space and shop.
For 35 years, Urban Dreams has offered programs such as job training and substance-abuse and mental health counseling. About seven years ago, the nonprofit added a food pantry to the mix in response to demand.
“Urban Dreams was never designed to distribute food,” says Executive Director Izaah Knox. “But we had so many mental health and substance-abuse clients asking us about local food pantries. We’d direct them to their closest pantry, and they’d tell us they couldn’t go there because they’d already been there this week, or there was some other barrier that made it so they couldn’t get the food they needed. We started offering food to our clients, and word got out on the street.”
For the first year of Urban Dreams’ food pantry in 2015, the organization distributed food to about 2,000 people, increasing each year to about 14,000 people in 2019. Demand soared in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Urban Dreams distributing food to almost 30,000 people that year.
“We were the only organization for miles around that never closed a single day during COVID,” Knox says. “We couldn’t hold our usual group activities in 2020 so we shifted our priorities and our staff to feeding people.
“The Food Bank of Iowa had food they needed to get out to the community, and we had the infrastructure in place to help,” he adds. “They donated food to the Orchestrate restaurants Malo and Centro, [which] prepared meals that we then distributed both from our office and off-site locations like local parks.”
At press time, the organization was on track to provide food to about 15,000 people in 2022, more consistent with pre-pandemic levels.
Because Urban Dreams wasn’t designed to have a food pantry, they don’t have a dedicated budget for it. Instead, the organization relies on a rotation of weekly donations. They get an order of nonperishable items every week from the Food Bank of Iowa; the restaurants Centro, Malo, and Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh of Ankeny donate prepared meals four days a week; and they get food rescue donations from Hiland Bakery, Kum & Go, Whole Foods, Price Chopper and Gilroy’s restaurant. Individuals and businesses sometimes bring in supplemental donations as well.
Even with this consistent slate of donations, Urban Dreams sometimes runs out of food because of limited storage and the fact that the organization never turns away anyone looking for food. The new food pantry’s expanded space will allow Urban Dreams to accept bigger donations and keep more reserves on hand.
The organization expects to move into its new facility in the first half of 2023. Knox looks forward to serving even more community members in need.
“We always want to treat people with dignity and respect, reduce their barriers to entry, and get them the things they need,” he says. “Our clients told us they needed more access to food, so we provided it. With the food pantry in our new building, we’ll be able to do even more.”
How to Help
“We need help to help others,” says Urban Dreams Executive Director Izaah Knox. “We could do more if we had more.”
Urban Dreams accepts donations at 601 Forest Ave. weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Current needs:
- Monetary donations.
- Packaging materials such as Ziploc bags, to-go containers and grocery bags.
- Nonperishable food, particularly protein such as canned tuna, chicken and beans.
If you know of a restaurant, business or food rescue organization that would like to help, contact Urban Dreams at 515.288.4742.
Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness of food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.