Dubuque benefits from fruits of Labor Harvest

Dubuque Area Labor Harvest

Area served: Dubuque County.

Services include: Monthly grocery giveaways, free hot breakfast most Saturdays, free delivery of groceries. 

Contact: 563-582-5947.

More information: bit.ly/3P8CoGc.

This story is part of a series in which the Telegraph Herald regularly is profiling tri-state area social service agencies.

Dubuque Area Labor Harvest’s history of service in the tri-state area runs deep.

The Labor Harvest, a volunteer-run food pantry founded and led by current and former union members, has been serving Dubuque for four decades.

The organization’s roots date back to the early 1980s, when Dubuque was in the throes of an economic downturn. Dubuque had the state’s highest unemployment rate at 23% between 1980 and 1983. Many of the jobless were union members who had been laid off by John Deere or the Dubuque Packing Co.

Activists in local union leadership took notice and began organizing food drives for their members.

“We had people that were always concerned about the citizens of the community and their needs and pushed us to be involved,” said Dan White, a retired member of UAW Local 94 who served as its president for 21 years.

Those food drives eventually opened up to the general public and gradually became a regular event, according to Tom Townsend, treasurer for the Labor Harvest and business manager for IBEW Local 704.

Today, the Labor Harvest gives away boxes of groceries to families in need every second Saturday of the month and serves hot breakfast other Saturdays of the month. The Labor Harvest served 289 breakfasts last week, Townsend said.

The group also began delivering groceries to people’s homes during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to do so every first and third Saturday of the month.

Twenty to 25 people volunteer for the monthly grocery giveaway, Townsend said, while another six to eight work on the weekly hot breakfast. Some 15 to 20 volunteers drive across the county to deliver groceries every other week.

The organization’s scope so far has been limited to Dubuque County, but members are prepared to deliver further — provided a volunteer is willing to make the drive.

“At this point, I haven’t had any volunteers talk to me about gas costs, but I’m waiting,” Townsend said, chuckling.

Like many food banks in the tri-state area and nationwide, the Labor Harvest continues to face heightened demand as federal and state pandemic aid runs out.

“Now, that’s pretty much dried up, and we’re back to pre-COVID funding, and we’re spending probably three times what we were before,” Townsend said.

Because of the large quantity of groceries the organization purchases on a weekly basis, Labor Harvest members prefer cash to donations of food.

And the organization always is open to more volunteers.

“Anyone who wants to come down and help out, we’re open to that,” Townsend said.