CEDAR RAPIDS — Sonia Kendrick will walk across the stage Saturday to collect her diploma in agronomy from Iowa State University.
But before she gets to enjoy that pomp and circumstance, Kendrick, 35, of Cedar Rapids, has some other walking to do. About 100 miles of walking, actually.
Kendrick is spending four days walking from Cedar Rapids to Ames to raise awareness about hunger in Iowa and for her nonprofit organization, Feed Iowa First. After taking her last final exam Monday, she left Cedar Rapids early Tuesday and expected to overnight along her journey with family or community hosts in Keystone, the Meskwaki Indian Settlement and State Center before arriving in Ames on Friday.
Driving that route three times a week for six semesters — mileage that would take her around the world one and a half times — gave her plenty of time to think, Kendrick said Tuesday during her lunch stop at the Youngville Cafe, about 15 miles west of Cedar Rapids. She said she decided she wanted to do something to help the 340,000 Iowans who have limited access to safe and nutritious food on a daily basis, and raise awareness of the fact that 85 percent of Iowa’s food is imported.
You often hear that Iowa feeds the world, Kendrick said, but some of the state’s own residents aren’t being fed.
“We put all of our focus into two different crops,” she said. “But when Iowa State was founded there was over 200 different crops we grew.”
To increase production of vegetables and fruit, the state will need “many, many good farmers,” she said.
Importing food ties the price of that food to rising fuel costs, Kendrick said. So Feed Iowa First aims to take donated plots of land — mostly from Cedar Rapids-area churches at this point — to grow fresh produce for local food pantries. In a trial run in 2011 with one acre of donated land, she grew more than one ton of vegetables for the Abundance of Love food pantry.
As her venture blooms, Kendrick said she hopes to hire aspiring farmers for one- or two-year rotations, so they can help tend the produce and learn farming techniques they can then teach others around the state, hopefully eventually qualifying them for low-interest Farm Service Agency loans as new farmers.
“We have to invest in our future,” she said. “It’s vital that we see beginning farmers and new farmers as an investment into our future food structure, because it’s going to be more costly to ship food here.”
As for all that walking, Kendrick said she tried to train with daily walks, when possible, since she hatched the plan a few months ago. Her time spent in the Army and the National Guard, including a stint in Afghanistan in 2003, taught her some good lessons in keeping your feet dry for long-distance walking, she said.
She wears a yellow safety vest with reflective stripes and carries a backpack with spare socks, PowerBars, rain gear and a gallon and a half of water.
“I thought if I broke it up into four days, it’s doable,” she said. “I knew it was gonna hurt. But we can do things we cannot imagine.”