Volga City Grocery Program provides food and so much more

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Volunteers Jody Klingman, Ariel Endsley, Bryce Heller, Braden Taylor and Jeannie Weber distribute the meat portion of the Volga City Grocery Program to eligible seniors who participate.

Volga Mayor Carie Taylor directs one of the many young volunteers of the grocery program, while also checking participants in, coordinating pickups and keeping things running smoothly during the hour-long effort to distribute food to senior members of the community.

Some of the numerous volunteers who help in a variety of ways during the monthy Volga City Grocery Program: Ben Klingman, State Rep. Anne Osmundson, Zoe Strawn, Brandon Tieden, Sandy Lockard, Andy Whitford, Josiah Whitford, Jeanette Whitford, Dixie Palas, Reegan Perkins, Mayor Carrie Taylor, Heidi Capps, Mike Capps, Jill Fuhrman and Teresa Palas.

Grocery program volunteers stand in front of the table of available fruits and vegetables and the pre-made bags of items for each participant.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


A new program intends to help seniors in Volga by providing fresh, healthy and local groceries to members of the community who are 60 or older. 


Dubbed the Volga City Grocery Program, it was made possible through a Community Development Block Grant CARES Act (CDBG-CV) grant the city took advantage of as a way to assist its large number of elderly residents, which was a vulnerable population during the pandemic. It remains vulnerable even as the pandemic wanes due to new issues such as rising inflation, food prices and the cost of fuel. 


After the hard work that went into the application process, Volga was awarded $100,000 to put toward the effort to provide groceries to eligible residents once per month for a year, or until the money runs out. 


“The idea for the grocery program was a community effort, recognizing the need to stay close to home in a town that does not have a grocery store during times when the supply chain shortages limit the amount of supply that is available at the only convenience store in town,” explained Volga Mayor Carrie Taylor. “Now, as the program continues, we realize the unforeseen benefit of fuel savings for each participating household as well as a way for seniors on a fixed income to effectively battle the inflationary effect of food costs.” 


In keeping with the community theme and staying close to home, the program makes the effort to purchase all food locally, which Taylor noted is essential to the regional economy. It was done to help support local businesses that might struggle to remain open, should the pandemic return and prompt another shutdown. 


So, program volunteers put in the legwork, making calls and going to local businesses, finding ones that would be interested in partnering. The program now utilizes several locations, spreading grant money across multiple vendors, including Wilke’s and Pedretti’s Bakery in Elkader, Fareway in Manchester, Country View Dairy in Hawkeye and the Edgewood Locker in Edgewood. 


“We are committed to keeping all of the grant money as close to home as possible so our local communities support each other,” Taylor said. 


The program currently includes 121 people covering 62 households, who receive at least five varieties of fruits and vegetables and at least three options for meat, along with some canned fruits and vegetables that serve as a supplement to other pantry staples like milk, bread and eggs. 


In total, each senior walks away with $65 to $70 worth of groceries per month. 


Along with this, a partnership with the Central Leadership and Service Team provides meal ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snack time, and the required ingredients are almost always provided in the bags and boxes of groceries, except for the occasional random item like garlic powder. Otherwise, the plans are developed with the supplies available in mind. 


Don Dunbar, one of the elderly participants, talked about how the program helps with the little things he has trouble accessing. Dunbar, touching on his Christian faith, noted how he gives some of the groceries away to those in more dire need, as a way to share the wealth and spread it around the community. 


Sandy Lockard, a volunteer who helps wherever she is needed, enjoys having something to do. She volunteers because she likes “staying busy.” Of course, she was quick to add that volunteering gives a sense of being helpful and impactful, and doing so makes her “very happy.” 


One person who showed up to take advantage of the program was Helena Davis, who immediately stated how the groceries are “very much appreciated.” The program allows Davis to save money, which is vital on a fixed income. The addition of extra groceries means her supply of food will last longer, all of which “makes life easier,” she said. 


“It’s four blocks away for luxury,” Davis added. 


The ease of the program was also mentioned by Virgil Dennler, who acknowledged he could get the food items elsewhere, but being able to go to the Volga City Opera House cuts down on expenses, like the price of gas. 


Making life easier was mentioned by Wanda Baker as well, who was overjoyed by the grocery program, emphasizing how much she “loved it!” and how the volunteers and the City are “doing a great job.” 


When it comes to the people who make the program run, there is a dedicated group of over 40 volunteers. Mike and Heidi Capps spend their time monitoring and handing out items like bread and potatoes, assisting people around the opera house and helping them get what they need. 


The two had high praise for Taylor and the organization of the program overall, which “runs smoothly,” with people coming and going and volunteers directing traffic with the utmost cordiality and friendliness. 


To the Capps, the program is important because it helps people on fixed or low incomes and they help out because it’s the Christian thing to do, Heidi said. 


Then there is Theresa Palas, who was in charge of the fruit and vegetable bags. As part of the program’s growing nature, these bags are all pre-made now, so people can simply walk in and collect their entire bag of fruits and vegetables. It varies depending on what’s available, but typically includes items like grapes, cauliflower, broccoli, bananas, apples and strawberries. 


Palas is driven by a sense to give back to the community, so much so that anything she receives from the program she donates to local food shelfs and other organizations that need it. In her words, the program is “awesome and fantastic.” 


One very noticeable aspect of the grocery program was the amount of young volunteers on hand. Recently, there were at least 12 under the age of 14. 


Taylor said, “We encourage our young people to get involved.” 


Three such volunteers were Zoe Strawn, Brenden Russell and Brandon Tieden. Strawn, who is 14, was helping seniors grab their groceries, pack them up, carry them out and load them into cars. On a Friday night, the teenager could have been anywhere, but she was volunteering because of a willingness to help. “It’s a good thing,” she said. 


“Helping people is one of the best things I can do,” Strawn added. 


She also gets to hang out with friends like Brenden and Brandon, who were heavily involved in the boxing and carrying. The three teens were not just friendly, but seemingly mature beyond their years. 


Brenden said he participates because helping people who need it is a nice thing to do, and because he “enjoys it.” Brandon shared a similar sentiment, stating that being at the opera house allows him to “help people who aren’t as young and need assistance.” 


VCTC Executive Director Tom Klingman also spoke about the organization’s involvement and the partnership that led to the VCTC providing the opera house as the place to set up shop. 


Klingman said involvement was a way to support community development and help local organizations that give a boost to the community. He also mentioned the social and cultural benefits of the grocery program, which allows interaction and conversation, and shows the elderly community that people still care, that they are valued and that someone is there to help. 


VCTC COO Jody Klingman, who also volunteers her time, often in the transportation of meat and the subsequent distribution of it, added that donating opera house space helps “give people a sense of community.” It demonstrates to community members that “there is support” for them. Seeing the community come together in the effort is a driving force behind her involvement. 


The sense of community was strongly evident in the words of VCOH Executive Director Ariel Endsley, who, along with Jody Klingman, is one of the people behind the acquisition of meat products, driving to stores, hauling it back to the opera house and overseeing distribution. 


The grocery program does a few things as Endsley sees it. One of them is combating food insecurity that comes with rising food prices. Providing basic needs is one way a community can continue to grow and expand. 


Endsley spoke about her time away from small town life and how it taught her the importance of community, that it is a critical piece in the continued existence of rural towns. It’s things like the grocery program that hold community together and help build its resilience. 


Taylor also touched on this aspect of the program, which has evolved into more than a simple grocery giveaway. It’s about a community coming together for a “project that serves each other,” she said. 


It’s about supporting the local economy that provides for everyone, including the vulnerable in the elderly community, and programs such as these have the ability to provide comfort “through loss and fear.” As Taylor suggested, they “provide a small sense of security in a world that is so uncertain.” 


“When I received a hug and a participant thanked us because she doesn’t have to leave her family member, who is on hospice, to go on a long shopping trip, my heart melted. I knew, at that moment, that this passion project is so much more than providing free groceries,” explained Taylor.

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