Local 704 Business Manager Tom Townsend and his wife Judee pack food boxes at the Dubuque Area Labor Harvest for delivery to area residents housebound and in need as the coronavirus crisis continues.

The Dubuque Area Labor Harvest sprung to life in the 1980s to help feed union members and their families in a city ravaged by recession and sky-high unemployment.

Retired Local 704 Business Manager Dan Hammel is a busy volunteer at the Dubuque Area Labor Harvest, where he helps prepare food giveaways and serve hot breakfast on most Saturdays.

As it helps a grateful Iowa community through a different kind of crisis, today, Dubuque Local 704 Business Manager Tom Townsend is doing a lot of the heavy lifting – literally.

“My wife yelled at me the first day we were packing boxes because they were way too heavy,” Townsend said, describing two weeks’ worth of food that he and other volunteers have been delivering to people in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

So they started packing meats, cheese, eggs and other refrigerated products in one box and canned goods, pasta and other non-perishables in another.

The boxes are still hefty, and Townsend hates leaving them on doorsteps for older recipients to manage by themselves, as volunteers are instructed to do. Occasionally he’s quickly carried them inside, keeping a safe distance. “If I’m delivering, it just depends,” he said. “I struggle with that.”

Every delivery begets more, as residents see drivers making the rounds. “Basically, the agency handling the calls sends us a list every day, and me and my wife come down and a couple of other volunteers and put the groceries together,” Townsend said.

The Labor Harvest survives on union support, community grants, and food from regional food banks, as well as donations from farms and bakeries. As the program’s treasurer, Townsend said he’s made it his mission to raise awareness and is seeing it pay off in aid and volunteers.

While those volunteers often include Local 704 members, Townsend said most of them are still working. “I’m spending about half my time here, and I’m able to do that because of their support for what we’re doing,” he said.

In addition to the home deliveries, the Labor Harvest still runs its primary programs: hot breakfasts served on Saturdays, except for once a month when there’s a walk-in food giveaway. The difference now is that breakfast is packaged to-go, as are food boxes that people pick up at the door.

Retired Local 704 Business Manager Dan Hammel was one of the Labor Harvest’s original board members. He’s on hand every weekend, and still goes along on box-truck runs to food banks to keep the program’s shelves and refrigerators stocked.

As needs are rising, so is the community’s generosity. “Organizations in Dubuque have been very gracious, going out of their way to help,” Hammel said. “Businesses have been making extra donations. And we’ve got lots of volunteers – lots of union people, retirees, their sons and daughters.”

Unions are family, after all.

“That’s really how this all started,” Townsend said, referring to the Labor Harvest’s origins in the 1980s. “The unions started collecting food for unemployed members, and then as the economy started getting better and people started going back to work, they said, ‘Why not start giving back to the community?’”