Extra! Extra! A New Use for Old Newsstands

Natasha Marquis

Writer: Andrea Love

At the height of the pandemic, Natasha Marquis experienced what she calls “a crisis of conscience.” She wanted to be more intentional about helping her community in Clear Lake.

While researching volunteer opportunities, she learned about various food-rescue efforts and pantries in Greater Des Moines and decided to help with similar efforts in northern Iowa. She quickly discovered, however, that there were relatively few resources in the area, even though she knew many folks didn’t have enough to eat.

An estimated 11,000 people, including 3,600 children, experience food insecurity in nine northern Iowa counties — Butler, Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Mitchell, Winnebago, Wright and Worth — according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

So in 2022, Marquis and more than a dozen volunteers founded North Iowa Mutual Aid (NIMA). The all-volunteer organization bridges gaps between existing services in the area through a mutual-aid model that helps communities work together to both give and receive support. As the nonprofit’s website puts it: “Take what you need. Give what you can.”

Slowly but surely, NIMA is establishing a presence in those nine northern Iowa counties, rescuing food before it goes to waste and distributing it through community fridges and pantries. They’re nothing if not resourceful.

“A local newspaper had shut down, and I realized I hadn’t seen newspaper stands around anymore,” Marquis said. “I’d seen them used as Little Free Libraries, and I thought, ‘Why can’t they also be pantries?’”

NIMA picked up 29 retired newspaper dispensers, and volunteers got to work cleaning and painting them. They filled two with nonperishable food and hygiene products and installed them in Mason City and Clear Lake for anyone to access, 24/7.

NIMA also plans to install in each of the nine counties they serve at least one community fridge, which can store produce, dairy and meat. “We have the funds, the fridges and volunteers — it’s the host sites we need,” Marquis said, noting that the ideal hosts are privately owned businesses.

She is thankful for what NIMA has accomplished so far and hopeful it can rally even more volunteers in each community to support its simple mission.

“We want to make sure that if people are hungry, they have food to eat.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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