Partner Profile: Bidwell Riverside Center

Families Forward – Bidwell Pantry (formerly Bidwell Riverside Center) has been feeding people on the south side of Des Moines for 128 years, and has been at its current location at 1203 Hartford Avenue since 1948. Bidwell was an original founding partner pantry of the DMARC Food Pantry Network when it was established in 1976.

“We provide the building, and the community provides everything else,” said Missy Reams, Volunteer and Community Outreach Manager at Bidwell Riverside Center.

Bidwell was originally founded by United Methodist Women, and until about ten years ago, the executive director was appointed by the Methodist Conference. Although the organization changed its status to a nonreligious nonprofit in 2012, Bidwell Riverside Center continues to receive strong support from Methodist churches and other faith communities, and is one of three National Mission Institutions of the United Methodist Women in Iowa.

The food pantry at Bidwell Riverside Center is consistently the busiest food pantry in the DMARC Food Pantry Network in terms of total number of individuals assisted. In fact, it is believed that Bidwell Riverside Center assists more people than any other food pantry in the state of Iowa.

Staff members at Bidwell attribute the success of the food pantry to its welcoming attitude and long history in the community. In addition to the food pantry, Bidwell Riverside Center also operates a clothing closet, holiday toy program, community garden, and child development center. Some families in the community have had three generations of children come through the child development center.

“We are here to advocate for our families,” said Reams. “We laugh with them and we cry with them. Most of them will say we’re like a family and they like to come visit us.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those individuals and families could no longer come inside the food pantry’s building to visit with volunteers and staff and select their own food items. But staff has still worked hard to provide a welcoming experience, even if people can’t come inside their doors. At the beginning of the pandemic, staff members greeted people in the parking lot, completing the intake process and bringing food items out to their vehicles. Once winter arrived, they made the adjustment to having people come up to windows outside the building.

“I have talked to so many people on the phone or at the window who lost their job, have never been to a food pantry before, and didn’t know how long it took for food stamps to start,” said Reams. “That’s the biggest surprise for people right now, that they didn’t know it can take four to six weeks for food stamps to start. And they’re on the phone going, ‘What am I supposed to do for the next month?’”

Bidwell received a tremendous amount of support from the community in response to the pandemic, with companies, congregations, organizations and individuals stepping up to make sure they had the resources to meet rising levels of food insecurity in the community.

“We had two or three days during the start of the pandemic,” said Reams, “where there was a line of cars out of the parking lot with people waiting to pull up and pop their trunk and drop off donations.”

And while it has been positive to see the community recognize and respond to food insecurity during the pandemic, staff members at Bidwell Riverside Center hope that support continues and the issue of food insecurity does not wane from the public’s interest as some aspects of daily life return to normalcy.

Food insecurity can often be hidden and intersects with other issues related to poverty such as lack of affordable housing and child care, transportation, low wages, and family crises.

“I always remember the day I had a corporate group come in,” said Reams, “and about 15 minutes after they left, one of the ladies called and she said, ‘Am I eligible to come get food at the pantry? I got divorced last year, I’m trying desperately to keep my kids in our house, I can’t afford it, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And I said, ‘Of course you are. Come on back in, let’s get you some groceries.’”

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