November 16, 2022

A Community in Need: Addressing Food Insecurity with Brucemore and Feed Iowa First

Autumn means harvest time for the volunteers who tend the community garden on the grounds of Brucemore, a National Trust historic site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now in its third year, the garden is a partnership between Brucemore and Feed Iowa First, a grassroots organization dedicated to addressing food insecurity and bringing organic produce to people in need in the region.

Since the spring, the garden has been producing greens that grow quickly and can be harvested often, and this final batch of vegetables includes okra and chard. After being harvested, the produce is loaded into the Feed Iowa First “veggie bus” and brought to food pantries, free clinics, and low-income apartment complexes, where they will be distributed free of charge. In 2021, American Association for State and Local History recognized both organizations with an Award for Excellence, its most prestigious accolade for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

A bus set up as a mobile store to sell fresh produce in communities with need.

photo by: Feed Iowa First

A view of the Feed Iowa First Veggie Bus at Brucemore.

Brucemore first learned about the opportunity to serve Cedar Rapids in this unique way during the early part of 2020—and it became more of imperative as the impacts of COVID-19 became evident, a time when food insecurity was rising sharply across the United States.

Food insecurity is about more than hunger, it is meant to measure a lack of consistent access to nutrient-rich foods that are vital to long-term health. In 2020, rising unemployment left people vulnerable to sudden losses in income, interruptions in the supply chain led to sparse grocery store shelves, and school closures meant that many children from low-income families lost easy access to meals under free and reduced lunch programs. All told, these cascading effects meant that an estimated 45 million people and 15 million children experienced food insecurity during 2020, according to national nonprofit Feeding America.

A Community in Need

The timing of the partnership was serendipitous. In early 2020, Feed Iowa First reached out to Brucemore about becoming partners under their “Grow Don’t Mow” program, which works with companies and organizations across Linn County, Iowa, to turn lawns and other open spaces into urban produce farms. “Brucemore’s cutting garden and vegetable garden hadn’t been utilized in quite some time, so it was the perfect opportunity for our organizations to partner and make something beautiful that would also benefit the community,” says Kit Kirby, the farm manager with Feed Iowa First.

Feed Iowa First volunteers cultivated beds of herbs, tomatoes, peppers, kohlrabi, radishes, and carrots during that first year, ultimately yielding 1,800 pounds of organic produce. With another growing season coming to an end, staff and volunteers on the project are looking back at what they have accomplished in such a short time, and exploring the vital role their partnership plays in a time of uncertainty and loss.

A man standing under a tree with various boxes of produce on the ground.

photo by: Brucemore

Volunteers standing in front of some of the produce from Brucemore's Community Garden.

A mobile pantry by Feed Iowa First carries a variety of fresh produce into the community.

photo by: Feed Iowa First

A look at some of the available produce from Brucemore's Community Garden.

A Landscape that Lends Itself to Philanthropy

As both the former home of significant Cedar Rapids families and a beloved historic site since 1981, Brucemore’s roots run deep in its community. In 1871, following the death of her husband, Caroline Sinclair built the estate as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. But it was Irene and George Douglas, the estate’s second owners, that expanded the grounds, gave the estate its name, and hired celebrated landscape architect O.C. Simonds to design the 33-acre property.

A leader of the Prairie Movement in landscape design, Simonds transformed Brucemore under Irene Douglas’ careful guidance. Much like the Prairie style in architecture, Prairie-style landscapes are meant to evoke open character, horizontal expanse, and the natural environment of the Midwest. At Brucemore, Simonds, with Douglas’ input, designed a formal garden that featured both naturalistic plants and a geometric border, a wooded area and “wild” garden filled with local wildflowers and native trees, a human-made pond, and more. The end result was an estate made up of a series of outdoor “rooms,” each offering a different experience to a person traveling the grounds.

photo by: Feed Iowa First

An aerial view of Brucemore's Community Garden.

The carefully designed landscape concealed as well as revealed. The “working” areas of the estate, which included the cutting garden, greenhouse, and servants “village,” were meant to be hidden by Simonds’ and Douglas’ carefully curated views. Yet these areas of the estate were vital to its operation and significant to the people who lived there. Though she may have wished to keep the work tucked away, Irene Douglas was very interested in farming, and set aside the cutting garden to grow flowers and vegetables for both the estate and the surrounding community. The Douglas’ regularly donated produce to those in need in Cedar Rapids and gave flower cuttings to the local hospital in order to brighten the rooms of patients in need.

Now, through the Feed Iowa First partnership, Brucemore is bringing this aspect of the Douglases’ philanthropy into the twenty-first century.

Surviving the Storm

Brucemore’s Feed Iowa First garden sprung from a desire by both organizations to serve the food insecure families of Cedar Rapids, but no one could have predicted just how significant their work would become. First came the pandemic; then, in August 2020, a weather event known as a derecho brought rain, hail, and 120-mile per hour winds to the region. The storm destroyed more than 65 percent of Cedar Rapid’s tree canopy, including dozens of old growth trees on the Brucemore estate itself.

The storm’s impact on the city’s infrastructure was devastating as well. Nearly 350 miles of power lines were affected in Linn County alone, and many homes in Cedar Rapids were without power, gas, or internet access for weeks. While such vital services were restored, getting food to people in need became more important than ever. “It was difficult for a moment to get fresh produce into the community and even more people fell into the [food insecure] category,” says Clevenger.

Dancing Children at Brucemore August 2020

photo by: Brucemore

A view of the "Dancing Children" at Brucemore in August 2020 after the Derecho.

Despite the devastation to so much of the landscape, the cutting and vegetable gardens were relatively unscathed. “But it took a while to get back in and make sure the produce got to the community,” Clevenger adds. “I heard stories of my fellow staff members having to cut [through the debris] to even make room to get out onto the grounds.”

Meanwhile, Feed Iowa First was acting quickly to ensure that they could get produce to the people in Cedar Rapids. “We couldn’t wash our produce or refrigerate it, so we were just harvesting it and taking it directly out to the community,” Kirby explains. “We were lucky enough to be able to go to the city, or FEMA, and ask ‘where are we most in need?’ Then we’d load up our bus with veggies, and we would be there on a dime.”

Giving Back Through Gardening

Now wrapping up its third growing season, the partnership between Brucemore and Feed Iowa First is still growing and adapting. In the last year in particular, Brucemore’s garden has shifted to better serve the specific needs of the people of Cedar Rapids, which is home to a thriving community of immigrants from Central Africa.

“Our big focus in the last year has been geared towards growing more culturally relevant produce. We’re going into our community and seeing what they want rather than just making assumptions,” says Kirby.

Four people standing under a tree holding boxes of produce.

photo by: Brucemore

Four of the volunteers at Brucemore presenting the produce they have harvested.

Jeanne Bornemann, a volunteer with both Feed Iowa First and Brucemore who has worked in the garden since 2021, has appreciated the opportunity to learn more about growing vegetables that are less familiar to her. “Collards, okra, and chard are things that I’m not familiar with in my background. Sometimes I see something and think, ‘wow, what is this?’“ In other instances, she has even considered adding new plants to her garden at home based on her experiences on the Brucemore estate.

“This partnership is really unique,” says Clevenger. “Museums and nonprofits so often find themselves in a place where they keep having to ask—ask for donations, ask for support. And for this partnership, we don’t have to ask for anything in return. We can just give.” 

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Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.

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