BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Sometimes it really is easier by the dozen.
The North Lee County Food Bank has been basically run by George Gaudette for the past 12 years. Gaudette said in February he’ll step off the board that governs the food bank.
The former Washington D.C. educator and principal said he’s been working for the food pantry since he and his wife, Mary Ann, moved into the area about 13 years ago.
Gaudette said when he and Mary Ann moved into the area after retiring as a teacher and principal in the Washington D.C. school systems, they weren’t certain about their future, but took up a rental in the area offered by a church. He said Mary Ann had family in the area and a member of the church asked him to help out at the local food pantry in his spare time.
“I said I’d do it. I was retired. I needed something else to do,” Gaudette said Friday afternoon, “I thought I’d do it for a year and here I am twelve years later.”
Gaudette serves as chairman of the food pantry’s local board, but said in February he’s giving formal notice that he is resigning from the post.
The face of the organization for the past dozen years said he knows all too well how families can struggle for food.
‘When I was a boy I used to remember my folks eating a lot of popcorn, towards the end of the month they were always eating popcorn and, as kids, we didn’t really understand it then, but we only had enough food for us kids.”
Growing up in lean times usually meant the military for kids in George’s generation. As such he ended up signing up for the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. There he didn’t see any active combat, but only summarizes his time in the military as “intelligence”.
“I did that for three years over there. If we heard of some Russian intel, we went out and got it daytime, nighttime it didn’t matter,” he said. ” When I came back home, I did a little more of that after I became a civilian again, but it was intelligence.”
After saving enough money, Gaudette said he bough a Volkswagen van and began to travel. He got all the way down to Marrakesh in Morocco. He said he traveled in the van and stayed wherever he could find a place to stop for the night.
At one point he said was in the Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain and the government began to gather up foreigners and ship them from the country.
“I got back into the United States and decided I’d better find something to do so I went to college, a couple different ones actually, and got my teaching certificate,” Gaudette said.
From there, he ended up in Washington D.C. teaching at all black schools in the district.
“I was the only white guy in the place,” he said. “And it was very interesting. I would spend sometimes three hours a night preparing for class. I taught different things like history, English, and wherever they needed me.”
It was in the district that he met his wife, Mary Ann, who was also employed by the district. He said they have been married now for close to 15 years.
He said the food pantry has undergone many changes during his leadership, including going from the sub-basement at the United Methodist Church to the current location in the former Idol Rashid Memorial Library across from McDonald’s on Business 61.
“When we were in there, we really had no space. There were a lot of small food pantries around the area and really you just came to the door and we handed you a bag of food. That was how it worked.”
He said there was very little refrigeration at the church and food had to be cycled quickly between the time it was received and the time it was handed out.
Now, at the library, the pantry has more space and can work the pantry more like a grocery where volunteers can help residents pick the food they need and point them to healthier options like produce.
“It’s been very well received since we made that change. Now they feel like they’re shopping instead of just getting a bag of food.”
The food pantry on Wednesday was given funds from the United Way of the Great River Region and at the luncheon, Gaudette informed the crowd that just in the past year, the pantry has served more than 275 more people than the previous year.
The food pantry reports inventories and participants to the Iowa Food Bank, who brings food down to Fort Madison on a regular basis. But the amount they bring has increased steadily to help the local areas. The Food Bank truck, which also sets up a mobile bank for residents in the Shopko parking lot, brings about 7,000 pounds of food on each delivery and the pantry is only charged .07 per pound.
The pantry is also getting supplementation from all three area grocery stores and several restaurants with food recycling programs. They also get contributions from local churches and monetary donations that total about $65,000 per year.
Gaudette said that he will continue to help the pantry with food pickups and some of their events like the holiday food baskets that help feed families during the holidays.
“I’m retired,'” he reiterated. “I need something to do.”