UI senior builds web page mapping out Iowa City meal locations for those in need

UI senior Russell Martin has built a website that uses Google Maps in order to outline where affordable meal resources are available throughout Iowa City.

Will Fineman, News Reporter

Updated:


University of Iowa senior Russell Martin built a website mapping out local food banks, soup kitchens, and schools serving meals throughout Iowa City to residents in need. The map also includes locations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infant, and Children program.

The closure of many local businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of a stable income for many families nationwide. Community members are increasingly turning to these resources to cope with the novel coronavirus’ financial effects.

Martin, a biomedical-engineering major from West Branch, Iowa, said he saw a similar project carried out by students in California. When the Iowa City Community School district announced on March 16 that schools would be closed until April, Martin said it spurred him to create the website for Iowa City.

“I thought it would be a good way to help students because, for example, if you go to a high school that is two miles away, you might not be aware of the fact that there is an elementary school just two blocks from your house that is also serving meals,” Martin said. “After making the map, I thought that it wouldn’t be too much more effort to add local food banks and soup kitchens.”

Martin said he learned how to make the map by Googling helpful tools and tutorials on YouTube. He then spent about 10 days using Google Sheets and Maps to make the website as interactive and up to date as possible, Martin said.

“Because of the coronavirus in the last month, a lot of these places have changed their hours or even closed entirely,” Martin said. “I wanted my map to be really current and have the current operating hours for these locations.”

The website includes a layout of Iowa City, and has different icons to depict where schools, food pantries, soup kitchens, and assistance programs are located, depending on a user’s needs. Once a user clicks on a location, a tab on the left will provide them with information such as its address, hours, eligibility, website and contact information, and the provider.

“It’s nice because it has resources based on what is available during the COVID-19 situation,” said Sarah Witry, director of services at CommUnity crisis services and food bank. “It is interactive and easy to use, so I think it is a great resource.”

Related: Johnson County food pantries collaborate to deliver food during COVID-19

Witry said the number of people that have come to the food bank for meals has decreased recently, likely because people do not want to be outside amid community spread of COVID-19. As this pandemic continues, however, CommUnity expects more residents than usual will seek assistance, Witry said.

“We’re so happy to still be able to provide our service and feed these people because this is something that nobody has experienced before,” said Ronda Lipsius, co-director of the Free Lunch Program. “Every single person is so appreciative, and it is just amazing.”

Martin said he started the map project because he wanted to do whatever he could for Iowa City. If he helped one person find the resources they need, Martin said, then he has succeeded.

“The real people that are helping us win this battle against food insecurity are the people at the food pantries, soup kitchens, and these schools,” Martin said. “I’m just doing my little bit of help to make the amazing work that these people are doing more visible and more accessible.”

Martin said he plans to update the map as much as he can during the COVID-19 crisis, but he is also set on trying to help others create similar projects for their own communities.

“Anybody can do it,” Martin said. “That’s actually the next step of this project for me is to make a guide so that other people can make this kind of a map for their community.”

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