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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Education and recreation will come together Saturday at Hearth Fest 2010, a fundraiser for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.

Like any summer get-together worth its salt, the Gateway Park gathering will feature great live music, local art and family activities, with attendees invited to pack a picnic lunch and spend the afternoon along the river's edge.

But this year, organizers added one more piece to the puzzle --- the opportunity for participants to roll up their sleeves and join the fight against hunger in the Cedar Valley. Attendees have the opportunity to work alongside food bank staff members in assembling food bags for the elderly. Each package will include a complete meal that recipients can prepare at home over the weekend when many senior meal facilities are closed.

"Our theme this year is volunteerism, and the elderly bags are something that's easy for us to bring out and pack, and it's also very meaningful as well," said Sheri Huber-Otting, event director. "We hope this will give people an idea of some of the things they could do if they volunteer at the food bank, and we're hoping it will encourage more people to come out later in the year and help us out."

This year's festival will run from noon to 9 p.m. and feature musicians from the Cedar Valley Acoustic Guitar Association. Half-Masted, a University of Northern Iowa improv comedy troupe, and Dean "The Dean of Juggling" Franzen also will entertain. Numerous local artists have donated their works for a silent auction and artisan table, with all proceeds going to the food bank. Attendees are asked bring nonperishable items or make a cash donation to the food bank.

In the past five years the annual event has brought in more than $8,000 and more than 1,400 pounds of food.

"Every year it's bigger and bigger, and I think that's because it's such a relaxed event," said Kristie Swatosh, another festival organizer. "It feels like a big family picnic. People come off the bike trail, stay for a while, and then come back with their coolers to just enjoy the great music and the great art."

The festival also has blossomed into a can't-miss event for live music lovers. This year's gathering features nine acts, including Karla Ruth, Uncle Chuck and Raldo Schneider & Friends. All the performers donate their time.

"Everybody recognizes that the food bank is one of the great charitable organizations in our community," said Rick Vanderwall of the guitar association. "They provide such a basic service, such a necessary service."

In the last fiscal year, the food bank distributed 5.6 million pounds of food, an all-time annual high, said executive director Barb Prather. Distribution in July was up 17 percent over the same time period in 2009.

That jump is partially due to the agency's new mobile food pantry program, which is now serving five communities in Northwest Iowa.

Still, the statistics show more and more area residents depend upon the food bank, Prather said.

"There are still a lot of people hurting," she said. "And they need access to services more than they ever have before."


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