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Last in a series.

WATERLOO, Iowa --- Barb Prather and her staff at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank have become adept at squeezing square pegs into round holes.

But sometimes there are just too many square pegs to handle.

"This building was not meant to be a food bank," Prather, the organization's executive director, said of the cramped operation at 106 E. 11th St.

Despite handling donated and purchased food for more than 200 agencies across 16 Iowa counties, the agency's building is awkward, aging, lacks proper security and is just too small to operate efficiently.

"Target Perishable offered us 57 pallets of eggs, but we had to turn them down because we lacked the cooler space," Prather said. "We could have taken so much more if we had space."

The situation is expected to improve dramatically with the planned late March opening of a new $6.5 million distribution center under construction at Lafayette and Vinton streets. The 45,000-square-foot building will be twice as big as the current facility and have three times the usable space.

Fund drive organizers are working to raise the final $800,000 for the project, which is more akin to an industrial warehouse than a neighborhood grocery.

"A lot of people have the mindset that it's just a food pantry," said Jeanne Miller, who chairs the Northeast Iowa Food Bank board. "Before I was a board member I didn't understand there's such a large distribution system."

And to those who questioned the need for a new building, Miller offered this advice: "Take a tour. A picture's worth a thousand words."

"There's stuff here, there's stuff there, we've just outgrown that facility," she said. "The space is so insufficient that we can't receive all the nutritious food we need."

Prather offered tours of the old and forthcoming buildings in September.

Currently the intake room for food assistance is a small lobby that makes it hard to tell who's coming and going, with a wood-paneled waiting room that looks more like a closet. "When we have 70 or 80 families a day, it's a mess out here," Prather said.

The new building has three client intake rooms with a waiting area for 15 people. Families will go directly out the back of the intake rooms to the local food pantry with its own exit.

In the distribution area, the current building has much smaller dry storage, cooler and freezer floor space than the building under construction.

"When we get a load in we have to move things around to make it all fit," warehouse manager Todd Reuber said of the current operation.

The lack of space means the food bank can't enjoy some of the bulk purchasing power it will have at the new building. And it will no longer need to lease other cold storage space at private businesses.

In another room is a stack of orders for agencies waiting to go out and another stack of pallets for the backpack program.

"This is our biggest bottleneck," Prather said. "We're using our shipping and receiving area also as our volunteer area."

The new building will have separate areas for volunteers, shipping and receiving. There will be a kitchen to prepare meals now being handled at the Salvation Army. There are several loading docks instead of the single dock at the current facility. And the new building will have a sequestered room for sorting damaged food items.

The latter is a requirement of the Feeding America organization, of which the food bank is a member.

"Feeding America has standards you have to meet," Prather said. "If we're going to do it efficiently and make sure it's safe, we have to meet these standards. This (current) building won't pass that muster."

Virgil Scott is more than 75 miles away from the new Northeast Iowa Food Bank building. But he knows how important it is for the agency to distribute food across a large region and how warehousing and transportation logistics come into play.

Scott is director of the Montezuma Ministerial Association, which operates a pantry stocked heavily by the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.

"They are far and away our biggest source of food," Scott said. "We get it from them and all we pay is a handling fee."

A truck from the Waterloo warehouse carries food to Montezuma once a month. More often, a truck picking up baked goods and meat from Walmart in Grinnell will swing by Montezuma to drop some off before returning to Waterloo with the rest.

"We used to run it on contributions but now we're helping over 200 families in our food pantry," Scott said. "In a small county like this, there's no way people could donate that much food."


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