Northeast Iowa Community Action: Taking action amidst COVID-19

by Karli Schmelzer, NEICAC Operations & Development Director

America was built on the promise that every family should have the opportunity for success. Whether our neighbors are experiencing a temporary setback or face a continuous challenge to meet their needs, too many struggle to achieve a good quality of life. On a national level, nearly 40 million people are living in poverty and even more are just one missed paycheck away from hardship.

We believe everyone should be able to take care of their families and have an equal opportunity for success. Community Action Agencies across the United States serve 99% of all counties in America with life-changing services to help families achieve financial stability. Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation (NEICAC), your local non-profit agency serving Allamakee, Bremer, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek Counties, works to create opportunities and improve the lives of others, while also striving to make our communities stronger.

In April 2020, we recognized that COVID-19 forced life-altering changes on our employees, clients, community members and businesses across our seven-county service area. To best identify the needs in our service area, we completed a COVID Community Needs Assessment. With thorough research on the current and pending implications of the pandemic and distribution of surveys to business stakeholders, NEICAC employees and community members across our service area, a COVID-19 Community Needs Assessment was compiled. The NEICAC COVID Community Needs Assessment can be located at www.neicac.org/community-needs-assessment.

Through review of the data compiled from the Needs Assessment, our agency Crisis Policy was updated. Some updates to the crisis policy included:

• Increasing the Federal Poverty Level guideline for crisis eligibility to 200%
• Increasing the yearly maximum amount a household can receive through crisis funds in a 12-month period from $500 to $1,000.
• Assisting households with rent with a past due notice, rather than an eviction notice.
• Assisting households with a past due mortgage payment.
• Assisting households with a past due utility bill notice, rather than a disconnect notice.
• Assisting individuals with vehicle repairs to support the need for getting to work, school or regular medical appointments.
• Assisting individuals with a bill to a mental health provider to allow them to re-engage in or continue mental health services.
• Assisting households in maintaining or gaining broadband internet and/or smart phone access.

In addition, we have allowed households to receive food from our NEICAC Food Pantries as often as once per week and created a Food Delivery Program that has delivered food to the doorstep of households across our seven county service area. The Food Delivery Program was initiated by a partnership with Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging (NEI3A).

NEICAC Transit has been delivering frozen meals to NEI3A clients in five counties since mid-April. Two counties in our service area (Howard and Winneshiek) applied for the federal Community Development Block Grant and were awarded funding to support the Food Delivery Program. We also had many local contributions and area businesses who provided financial support to the program.

From there we made every effort to connect with all Food Pantries in our seven-county service area and share our vision for the program. We’ve created some imperative partnerships with local pantries and have had to work as a team every step of the way to create a plan, put the plan in action, and come back together to make any necessary changes, all while keeping the need of the households we serve at the forefront of decisions.

Within our agency, we have also relied heavily on our Transit system for completion of deliveries, taking referrals from pantries, and tracking our outcomes. In addition, we were able to include our Weatherization staff, who were not working in homes from March through the end of July, to assist with deliveries. With the helpful hands and compassionate hearts of many, we have delivered over 70,122 pounds of food to the doorsteps of 1,200 households since April 2020.

Food delivery recipients and partners have shared the following comments about the Food Delivery Program:

“It is hard for me to get around, and I am on oxygen all the time. The delivery program has been a God-send to allow me to get food from the pantry.”
- LT, age 74

“We were surprised when my teen daughter was told by work she tested positive and we had to quarantine for two weeks. With being out of work it’s hard to make ends meet some times, and not sure how we would have gotten food without the delivery program.”
- MB, age 44 (family of four)

“The delivery program from the pantry is wonderful. I live on Social Security only and do not have a car. It is great to be able to use the pantry even though I can’t drive there, and have no family around here.”
- BL, age 76

“This partnership has allowed us to meet the needs for many families that suffer from food insecurity with a transportation barrier. We have received many thank you letters and calls regarding this service.”
- Kari Harbaugh, Guttenberg Family Resource Center

If you or someone you know is in need of crisis assistance or looking for a referral to a particular resource in your community, please reach out to us at 563-382-8436 and we would be happy to connect you with the outreach office in your area.

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