Knock and Drop Iowa Uplifts Latino Families with Culturally Specific Support

February 21, 2024

Photo from Knock And Drop Iowa's Facebook page

Cars begin to fill the parking lot at Franklin Center at least two hours before Knock and Drop Iowa opens. People of all ages walk toward the entrance, grocery totes in hand. Some push strollers with sleeping babies. Others extend a hand to elderly mothers as they walk into the building. 

Inside, a long line of people forms in front of a vast room filled with boxes of food, fluorescent lights reminiscent of the middle school once housed by the building. Conversations in Spanish ring through the hallway. Busy volunteers arrange boxes of jalapenos, tortillas, beans, and rice. Tables are set up to inform families how they can receive support from IMPACT Des Moines. 

And at the front of the room is Zuli Garcia. Zuli founded Knock and Drop Iowa (KADI), a culturally specific food pantry serving Latino families in Des Moines. As people flow in, they talk with Zuli in Spanish, asking her where they can go for food or how they can receive services from IMPACT. She switches back and forth between Spanish and English, directing volunteers and donors while ensuring families are receiving the services they need.

Zuli Garcia

She’s proud to be the person many come to for help.

“I’m usually a go-to person and advocate in the Latino community,” Zuli said. 

From Pandemic Project to Community Nonprofit

Zuli began Knock and Drop Iowa at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when many local Latino families began to reach out to her for support. 

“Many families were contacting me saying ‘I’m losing my job. I don’t have many hours at work. I can pay my bills and rent, but I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family,’” Zuli said. 

Preventing hunger is close to Zuli’s heart. She had experienced food insecurity as a child and understands the fear and anxiety that it causes. She began calling around to different food pantries to see what was available. 

She quickly realized many Latino families would not feel comfortable or welcomed at the usual food pantries because they require an Iowa-issued identification, lack translation services, and don’t supply culturally familiar foods. 

“There are a lot of people out there that are nice and mean well. But unfortunately, if you require a Social Security identification, it’s going to stop many families from going,” Zuli said. She’s heard families say, “I don’t have what they’re asking me for, and then there’s a language barrier so I can’t even explain why I don’t have this. Then maybe at the end, I’m not even going to get food.” 

Understanding the unique needs of her community, Zuli mobilized a network of volunteers to ensure local families were able to to feed themselves. The group gathered food from whatever sources they could find and dropped it on people’s doorsteps. They provided vital support at a time when going to the grocery store or food pantry posed a serious health risk. 

KADI began serving 20 to 30 families a week. As word spread, more and more people pitched in to help. Restaurants that were closed due to the pandemic began donating food. They received food boxes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

They expanded to supporting 200 families a week with culturally familiar foods. 

When Latino families are able to utilize food pantries, very often what they take home are not the ingredients for meals that they’re accustomed to. Zuli said this causes even more discomfort for community members when they’re already experiencing hardship.

“Do you love Mexican food? Do you love Puerto Rican food? If you love our food, what makes you think we don’t love our food?” Zuli said. “Food should uplift, not put down. Even if they’re going through a hard moment, they should get food they’re used to cooking at home.” 

Photo by Mitchell Hartley

KADI ensures it carries ingredients for meals that are common across all cultures in the Latino community. Additionally, Zuli relies on a roster of 25 Spanish-speaking volunteers to support KADI’s operations. People from all over Latin America utilize KADI’s services, and Zuli aims to make everyone as comfortable as possible. 

Volunteers who do not speak Spanish hand out food to the line of families. Zuli’s only expectation is that they offer the food with kindness.

Uplifting the Community, One Family at a Time

The longer she operates KADI, the more “kindness” grows as an integral part of her organization. Her Latino community faced more issues than just food insecurity, and she was determined to remove barriers. 

The organization soon added wrap-around services and now partners with many local organizations to serve the community’s needs. They’ve partnered with Broadlawns Medical Center to provide flu vaccines and used a Polk County Early Childhood Development grant to provide 500 winter coats for children six and younger. 

KADI worked with Primary Health Care, Inc. to provide vaccines recently

The impact of Zuli’s work was shown on national television when she and Jose, the father of a family who uses KADI’s services, were featured on the Sherri Shepherd Show. Sherri provided Jose’s family with an array of Christmas gifts from Five Below. He couldn’t stop smiling as Zuli looked on with tears in her eyes.

“Being a single parent is not easy. I’ve had my tough times. During those times, I found out about Knock and Drop,” Jose told Sherri. “I took a long shot and reached out, and since then, Zuli has helped me with rent, utilities, food, even helping my kids get winter coats. For that, we’re really thankful.”

KADI also received a $15,000 donation from the show. 

Financial donations are a big help. Zuli emphasized that with inflation affecting food prices, monetary support remains crucial for KADI to provide the services local Latino families need. 

“If you’ve gone grocery shopping, you know that food is very expensive right now,” she said. “These are hardworking families that are struggling. Donating in bulk can help, too.” 

Zuli has heard no shortage of stories about how KADI has impacted local Latino families. 

“Families were saying that before they met me, they would eat their cereal with water. I heard from crying single moms that when they didn’t know what they were going to feed their children that night, our volunteers came through and brought a hot meal,” said Zuli. “We’re working really hard for our families to feel comfortable.” 

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CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.