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Food pantry gets national support to continue fighting food insecurity in Iowa's Latino communities

Kassidy Arena
Zuli Garcia, founder of Knock and Drop Iowa, makes sure the food is organized for the walk through pantry on Thursday. The walk-through food pantry with food trucks outside celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and Garcia's nonprofit being awarded a national grant to continue its efforts in feeding Iowa's Latinos.

People speaking Spanish lined up outside Knock and Drop Iowa’s food pantry entrance. Food trucks organized themselves outside.

Knock and Drop Iowa planned the walk-through food pantry to celebrate Latino Heritage Month, but also to celebrate an unexpected event.

The nonprofit garnered national support to continue bringing food to Iowa’s Latino communities with a $25,000 grant from the Hispanic Federation based in New York. Garcia said she didn’t expect a 2020 project that started in her garage to get national attention. The New York nonprofit implied to Garcia that this is just the beginning.

“It's kind of scary, to be honest with you, but kind of exciting to finally get the assistance and the help we need for our community here," she said.

Knock and Drop Iowa started out as a free food and delivery service in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to combat food insecurity within Iowa's Latino communities. It has since grown into a semi-weekly food pantry and will continue to expand with the newly available funding.

Kassidy Arena
Founder Zuli Garcia directed people to stand in line at the walk-through food pantry. The line wrapped around the building.

The all-volunteer organization provides culturally-specific foods and also places a large emphasis on providing fresh fruits and vegetables.

"If you love our food, what makes you think we don't love our food? And just because you were raised on maybe a can of soup or boxed mashed potatoes, what makes you think that's what we were raised on? So we need to think outside the box and understand that other cultures are different," Garcia said.

Garcia grew up in California in a single-parent household where a big meal wasn't always a guarantee. Her father came from El Salvador where his family lived with similar conditions. Garcia said she uses those experiences and stories as "fuel" to keep her going. Knock and Drop Iowa also expanded its services to include COVID-19 vaccine outreach as well as food providers.

“I really thought it was just going to be a project of maybe six months, right? Because of the pandemic. I didn't think that it was going to last this long. But then, even now when the pandemic is gone, and ends up leaving, hopefully soon, I think that this is needed. This is something that's a huge need," she said.

Knock and Drop Iowa said it has served more than 18,000 families all across the state. Since they don't require specific documentation of U.S. citizenship, Garcia said they have uncovered a group of people who may be overlooked by other food pantries.

According to a study by Feeding America, Latino households were nearly twice as likely to experience food insecurity as non-Hispanic or non-Latino households.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to giving you food," she said. She recalled a time when a woman walked into the pantry without documentation, fearing they would report her if she couldn't show her immigration status. Garcia said the woman's situation made her cry. She pulled a volunteer to the side and made sure the woman drove away with food in her car.

Armando Aguilar, 17, started volunteering with Knock and Drop Iowa as a service hour requirement. But after seeing the impact he was making on his community, he decided to stay well past his requirement.

"At the beginning, I was forced. But, you know, I started liking it. And so it came from my heart to come here and to help people," he admitted. "I'm really happy that we're growing because we're helping more people we're able to give more to the community that actually need it."

Aguilar said he sees Knock and Drop Iowa as a way to show underserved Latino communities in Iowa that people care about them. He said it's humbling to see people struggle to find food, when he has been fortunate enough to never have to consider when the next meal will appear on his table.

Garcia said she wants to challenge all Iowans to pay attention to the needs of underserved communities in the state.

Knock and Drop Iowa typically operates between 4 and 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays with food pickup.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines