It’s 4 p.m. on a warm, sunny Monday in September, and a long line is forming outside First United Methodist Church in Winterset. In 30 minutes, the doors will open to the church’s mobile food pantry, offered in partnership with the Food Bank of Iowa. Inside, 40 volunteers are hustling to unpack and arrange more than two tons of food. Outside, members of the community wait patiently and chat with friends and neighbors, some carrying boxes and plastic tubs to hold their groceries.

When the doors open, volunteers greet these clients and help them sign in. One volunteer is 8-year-old Aislyn Gust. She’s there along with her mom, dad, and two teenage brothers. A quiet, petite redhead, Aislyn says she likes helping people get their food.

There is plenty of help to go around. On this September day, Aislyn and her fellow volunteers (almost half of the 87 people who attend Sunday services at First United Methodist) assist 347 people, making up 136 families. The vast majority are from Madison County, with a handful from Union, Dallas, Adair, and Polk counties.

Once signed in, another volunteer greets the clients and escorts them downstairs to the Fellowship Hall. Church member Daryle Johnson says hello to a young woman named Kelsey, who is shopping for herself and her three-year-old daughter. He writes her name on two large boxes, loads them onto a small metal cart, and begins to make the rounds with her. He helps Kelsey fill her boxes with juice, canned fruit and vegetables, canned ravioli, a cheesy tuna meal, tortilla chips, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, whole wheat pasta, egg noodles, and burrito filling. Daryle urges her to take as many of the perishable bell peppers as she can use. She passes on frozen chicken and cranberries.

Next, Daryle escorts Becky to the elevator, operated by yet another volunteer perched on a stool at the control buttons. Once the elevator reaches the lobby, Daryle and Kelsey make the rounds, selecting garlic bread, potatoes, green apples, and potatoes. Then they head outside and to the curb, where Aislyn’s two teenage brothers and another battalion of volunteers load Kelsey’s and others’ boxes into their cars.

With that, Daryle and his cart descend in the elevator to begin the process again.

This is only the second time that Winterset’s First United Methodist has held their mobile food pantry. They offer it on the fourth Monday of every month, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The system is slick, and one that was developed by a core committee of four church members. It has already been tweaked since the first time the pantry opened up.

“We lie awake thinking about what we can do [to improve the system],” says Vicky Blair, the church’s administrative assistant and a member of the organizing committee. “The pastries need to be moved downstairs. They back things up in the lobby.”

Vicky is thinking about how to reach more people in the community and get them to return each month. So far, the church has used flyers and postcards to reach their neighbors in Madison County.

“It bothers me that we had 107 households the first time, and of that, 57 came back. Which means 50 didn’t,” she says.

Vicky is also looking for recipes to place with some of the staples such as whole wheat pasta and beans, to give clients ideas about how to use them.

The community members who use the pantry appreciate the effort.

“It’s great. Everybody’s great. They have good food and they help you to the car,” says Mary, who is using the pantry for the second time to help feed her six grandchildren.

Her friend Candy says she has a greater need for the food pantry since her 35-year-old son had a stroke and has missed two months of work. He and his wife have one child.

“Mary made me come,” she says.

Debbie emphasizes the importance of the assistance: “When my dollars are gone, this helps keep food in our stomachs.”

She is shopping for herself and her two teenage grandchildren.

“One-third of the money goes to bills, one-third goes to gas for the car and breakdowns, and then when something comes up you’re out of money,” Debbie says.

Clients using the mobile food pantry are asked if they meet income guidelines when they sign in. The monthly pre-tax income threshold flexes depending on the size of a family; for a family of four, it’s $3,677 (dropping to $3,240 in October). Those who line up in Winterset are allowed to use the pantry even if they don’t meet the guidelines, Vicky says, adding “Usually, they are way below the guidelines.”

She emphasizes that the pantry at Winterset’s First United Methodist Church is all about preserving dignity and making the process as easy as possible.

“I just remember being in a position like this,” she says. “It’s extremely difficult for people to come and do this, so we want to make it as simple and quick and friendly as possible.”

With a ratio of a little more than one volunteer for every client and high praise from the clients, Winterset’s First United Methodist Church can declare: mission accomplished.

— Tracy Petersen, Hunger Correspondent