About an hour west of Iowa’s capital city sits Cass County, which is home to eight thriving communities nestled into rolling hills and farmland in the southwest part of the state. Organized by Healthy Cass County External Site, a community-focused network working to promote the health and well-being of Cass County residents, these communities saw a lot of success with health and wellness programs in 2020.
One of the most important things to Healthy Cass County is collaboration. “It’s really important that we work together as a county for all of these activities, rather than creating competition between a lot of smaller communities,” says LaVon Eblen, a member of Healthy Cass County. “I think one of the reasons that these projects have been possible is because of the collaborative atmosphere in the county. Everyone pitches in to help.”
Their work last year, which included starting a mobile food pantry, encouraging local residents to plant more produce to share, installing raised garden beds for residents to rent, and improving recreational opportunities for all ages, led to Cass County receiving the 2021 Healthy Hometown Powered by Wellmark Community Award.
Learn more about the projects that contributed to this big win.
Improved local playgrounds and trails
Cass County enhances its parks and community spaces regularly, and some of its recent projects included adding a new playground and extending a walking path to make it more accessible at Schildberg Recreation Area. Plans were also finalized to complete a new connector trail from the recreation area to Atlantic to increase access.
“That park is about 145 acres and it brings people out there nearly 24/7 to take advantage of it,” says Bryant Rasmussen, Atlantic Parks and Recreation director. “We’re very excited about that because it’s a draw for not only Atlantic residents but also local communities.”
The department also added nearly a mile of hiking and biking trails, along with a fresh coat of paint to playground equipment at Sunnyside Park. “These rustic trails at the park really allowed us to expand our options for year-round recreation,” Rasmussen says. “They’re great for hiking throughout most of the year but can also accommodate fat tire bikes and even snowshoes in the winter.”
The department worked with the local police department and made 17 bikes available to rent at the station for use on the trails. “We want to make sure that people have these options available to them,” Rasmussen says. “You don’t have to go out and buy a bike if you want to use the trails, you can rent one for a few hours instead.”
Installed new raised garden beds
With so many Cass County residents enthusiastic about growing their own food, it only made sense to add raised garden beds to a local park. The need for community gardens in Atlantic was identified a few years ago through a local food system assessment, but the project was postponed due to flooding.
The new community garden became available in spring 2020. It includes 10 rentable raised beds with running water, workstations, a tool shed, and a compost pile for residents to use. Some of the beds were rented by local Master Gardeners, who maintained several of the beds as demonstration gardens. In the coming years, the county has plans to add a second growing area for ground garden plots.
In addition to providing gardening opportunities and food to the community, the community gardens also offered people visiting Mollett Park a chance to see how food is grown. “In August, we provided free produce snacks and summer toys to encourage outdoor activity,” says Brigham Hoegh, Cass County Wellness Program Coordinator. . “We purposefully did it near the beds so that when kids would walk over, their parents would follow and look at the plants with them and ask us about the gardens.”
Grow Another Row already have plans to expand programming at the gardens in 2021. Story walks, produce exchanges, and educational opportunities for those interested in gardening, are likely to be held at the park in summer 2021.
Started a mobile food pantry
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cass County struggled with food insecurity — with large percentages of students from the three school districts qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. When the pandemic shut down local schools, several organizations recognized that both health and economic factors might make it challenging for residents to get food. “We were already seeing an uptick with people getting hours at work reduced almost immediately,” Hoegh says. “And we knew we had to do something.”
In early spring, a partnership of area organizations jumped to apply for — and were awarded — an $87,000 grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority to establish a mobile food pantry. By the beginning of May, the Cass County COVID-19 Mobile Food For All was delivering food — including recipes, fresh produce, and healthy snacks — to households across the county each week. By the end of the year, volunteers made more than 1,500 food deliveries to more than 200 households in Cass County.
Though the program in its current form will end once the grant money runs out, it has already changed the ways Cass County addresses food insecurity. One major change was adding a second distribution day and home delivery option from the Atlantic Food Pantry, as many people said they didn’t have any reliable transportation to one of four food pantries in the county. “The funding was fantastic to have,” Hoegh says. “We were able to get food from both local growers and grocery stores. Also, many kinds of locally grown produce were donated by farmers’ market vendors, commercial growers, and youth participants.”
Developed the “Grow Another Row” program
One of the key partners to the mobile food pantry was a second program that grew out of the community’s response to food insecurity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Grow Another Row External Site. The project was timed perfectly and is poised to be sustainable over the long term. As local farmers and gardeners were getting ready to put seeds in the ground in early spring, the county encouraged them to plant a little more to help feed the food insecure in their community. Healthy Cass County set up a network of stations across the county where growers could share extra produce for residents to pick up. “One of the things we wanted was to have access to fresh, locally-grown produce out in every town and at different times, so that people could go when it was advantageous for them,” Eblen says.
More than 40 growers participated in the Grow Another Row program and donated significant amounts of produce across the county. The program, building on several years of food donation work by the Cass County Master Gardeners group, also featured regular communication and education to growers through a newsletter, and worked to provide education and recipes to produce recipients as well. At its peak, the program supplied more than 100 households with produce each week. When Healthy Cass County checked in with the growers at the end of 2020, they were already getting excited about participating again the following year. “Honestly, one of the highs of 2020 was this program,” Hoegh says.
Inspired by Cass County’s success?
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