OTTUMWA — The group of Ottumwans showed up at Quincy Place Mall parking lot, eager to help unload produce and put them in baskets. They do this biweekly, part of “Bountiful Baskets.”
The program is a national co-op run by volunteers. There are locations in 28 states. It made its way to Ottumwa in 2016. Those who participate make financial contributions which go toward purchasing produce from resellers at discounted prices.
Essentially, this allows people to purchase more produce for less money. To get a basket a person must make an account at bountifulbaskets.org. Then they select anytime from 9:15-9:35 a.m. to pick up their baskets.
Christina Lyon, a regular volunteer who also helps guide the other volunteers, has been participating since 2018. She heard that Oskaloosa had a site and heard good things about the co-op. Then she “fell in love with it” and participates every other Saturday.
“I do it A: for my family, [and] B: I love the people I volunteer with,” Lyon said. “The produce and being a part of this is something special.”
Lyon enjoys the fact that participants get different kinds of produce which also depends on the seasons. In spring and summer, one might get strawberries or lettuce; in fall and winter they may get squash, parsnips or radishes. On Saturday there were apples, lemons, cantaloupe, oranges, cucumbers, potatoes, baby carrots, beets and more.
“You know you’re going to get something great, but you never know 100 percent on what’s gonna be in there,” Lyon said.
A lot of work, Lyon said, goes into it. Not only do volunteers unload the produce from a semi-truck, they clean the baskets before putting in produce and attach sheets of paper which list the names and numbers of the participants.
Once the person arrives to claim their basket, they take their own bag or box and take their produce. Participants get the option of adding on to their produce for additional fees.
“The additional produce is something that Bountiful Baskets makes available on the site,” Lyon explained, “and each person can choose to add it to their cart when they are on the Bountiful Basket website to contribute. Only those who contribute will have produce to pick up.”
Those who did come expressed gratitude for the fresh produce. Debra Wright, a regular volunteer and participant, expressed her thanks for the produce, in awe of those who came. She couldn’t believe it has been four years since she got the Ottumwa site started.
Why does Wright continue to volunteer?
“Why not?” Wright asked laughing. “We like the produce and I like being with the people we have here.”
It was only Kathie Mason’s second time volunteering, but she has been making financial contributions for baskets for a while. She heard about it after she saw a friend post about it. Mason was interested and wanted to know more about the co-op.
“We’re vegetarians, so this fits right into what we eat every day,” she said. “I’ve got $18 for a box of beautiful fruits and vegetables that are fresh — I couldn’t pass it up. Then I thought I need to volunteer and help pass out. So I’ve been coming every other Saturday.”
Carol Ryon, a regular volunteer and participant since 2017, said Bountiful Baskets is her main way of getting fresh produce. “I don’t have to go to the grocery store and pick them out,” she said. “It challenges me to use it all, number one, so we’re getting more fruits and vegetables in our diet. It really pushes me to get my family of two now to eat all of it in two weeks time.”
The co-op happens year-round and didn’t even stop once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March. Volunteers wear gloves and masks. Lyon said in spite of COVID-19, something good came out of it.
“I think with that more people realized we’re here,” she said.
And it showed on Saturday. Cars were waiting past Bubba-Q’s and all 46 baskets, plus the “add-ons,” vanished.
To learn more about the co-op visit the local program’s Facebook page at Ottumwa IA Baskets of Fresh Produce or visit bountifulbaskets.org.