Lions club member hands over bag of popcornIt’s a deceptively modest fundraiser, but for one Lions Club, it’s the kernel of all their programs. Every Saturday, the Lions Club of Marshalltown, Iowa brings a popcorn machine to a local store and sells popcorn for US$2 a bag. The ingredients are modest, too: Iowa-sourced raw corn, salt, butter, and oil. What makes this fundraiser remarkable, though, is that the Marshalltown Lions have been holding it for 47 years. Since 1975, the Marshalltown Evening Lions have sold popcorn, and since 1979, they’ve been selling it weekly. In that time, the popcorn fundraiser has raised thousands of dollars that the Lions have seeded back into Marshalltown.


A corny idea

A little boy checks out a bag of popcorn from Marshalltown Lions. Good fundraisers often start with knowing your area and what you can bring to it. “Every club, every organization had their own fundraiser back then,” says Marshalltown Lion Dan Roberts. “You needed something of your own.” The popcorn fundraiser was created by late Lion Rod Roupp, a farmer, and made use of a resource he had plenty of–corn. It’s not hard to see why popcorn might be so popular in Marshalltown, where farms dot the landscape surrounding the city and its residents walk downtown past the historic Hotel Tallcorn. Even when you live in a city, in Iowa you can’t help but grow up around corn. And in Marshalltown, you can’t help but grow up around the Lions’ popcorn.

The Marshalltown Lions have a very long-tenured club; they’ve seen a lot of Marshalltown residents grow up, week by week, at the Saturday fundraiser. Roberts, the club’s treasurer, is its longest serving Lion with 43 years in the club. Lion Tim Fienup, the club’s secretary, joined in 1983 and may have the most experience at the popcorn machine; he estimates that in his 39 years as a Lion, he’s spent over 1,000 Saturdays selling popcorn.


Tricks of the tradePopcorn machine with Lions emblem.

The cornerstone of those Saturdays, of course, is the Lions’ popcorn machine. One of the Marshalltown Lions’ three machines can be found at the Hy-Vee grocery store every week, the smell of popcorn wafting across the parking lot, announcing the Lions’ presence before you even reach the entrance. The glass-paneled commercial poppers–the type you might see in a movie theater lobby–have the Lions Club International’s emblem proudly displayed on each panel. At 30 inches high they’ve nearly overgrown the carts they stand on, and their 6 oz. kettles can pop 15 cups per batch.  “The current machine takes about 6 minutes to pop a batch,” says Fienup. “The older machines were larger, slower to heat, and set on homemade carts.” The carts, handcrafted by skilled Lions, are missed, but running a fundraiser for this many years demands dealing with change as it crops up.


Down on the corner

Lions in Marshalltown sell popcorn at grocery storeThe biggest changes have involved the fundraiser’s location. The Marshalltown Lions are grateful for their spot at the local Hy-Vee grocery store, where they’ve been for the past three years. “Having a good spot everyone comes to is important,” says Fienup. “We were at the Marshalltown Mall for years, but there was less and less foot traffic.” A Marshalltown staple like the Hy-Vee made for the perfect new location, and the Lions quickly became established there. “[The popcorn stand] is the first thing you see as you walk up to the grocery store,” says April Long, director of the Marshalltown United Way Senior Citizens Activity Center, who has worked with the Lions on service projects. “It’s a local tradition,” says Fienup. “Once you smell the popcorn, you know we’re there.”

It wouldn’t be buttering anyone up to say this project carries a lot of weight. The Marshalltown Lions use at least a full 50-pound bag of raw corn every Saturday. That’s comparable to the amount of popcorn made on an average day at many multiplex movie theaters. Erika Melchor of Marshalltown’s Animal Rescue League, who has volunteered with the Lions, notes how many people were already waiting for their popcorn as soon as they started. “We kept selling popcorn non-stop,” she says. Fienup and Roberts estimate they pop 200 to 250 pounds of corn in a month. That’s impressive, but more a-maize-ing is the number of programs that popcorn funds.


Sowing seeds

Popcorn money contributes to a wide field of charitable initiatives in Marshalltown. The Lions oversee the local implementation of the Lions KidSight USA program, which screens children—over 700 this fall, according to Fienup—beginning school for eye disease. They also provide eyeglasses to lower-income residents in need through a Lions Eye Bank, as well as recycled hearing aids with the help of Iowa’s Wolfe Eye Clinic. “Every $130 buys a pair of glasses for a child or a hearing aid,” says Roberts. Popcorn money helps raise funds for many different services, including the local Emergency Food Box, Meals on Wheels, and Marshalltown Fire Department. Roberts and Fienup estimate their club spends anywhere from US$20,000 to US$24,000 per year in charitable giving.

The popcorn itself shows up at more places than just the Hy-Vee on Saturdays. It’s a favorite at many local events, including Marshalltown festivals like the annual Holiday Stroll in November and Bee Ridiculous Day, as well as larger events like Iowa’s famous RAGBRAI bicycle ride and festival. If an event is happening in Marshalltown, the Lions are there, often with the machine in tow. The Lions and their popcorn are “just an absolute fixture in the landscape of Marshalltown,” says Long.

Marshalltown is an active, neighborly city, but it’s faced some tumultuous years. The city has been besieged by a series of natural disasters, including a devastating EF3 category tornado in July 2018 and a similarly destructive derecho, a straight-line windstorm whose winds reached 99 MPH, in August 2022. Both storms caused widespread damage throughout the city, striking historical buildings, lower-income housing, and the Iowa Veterans Home. “Marshalltown’s been through the ringer,” says Long. “The Lions and other service groups helped it recover.” The Marshalltown Lions and other local organizations helped clean up debris, repair damaged buildings, and plant trees to replace the 3,000 that were lost to the storms.


Rows of plenty

The Marshalltown Lions don’t limit this shared work to emergencies, but collaborate with other service groups on a regular basis, like with the popcorn fundraiser. These “guest poppers,” as Fienup and Roberts call them, include representatives from the United Way Senior Citizens Center, Marshalltown Kiwanis Club, Marshalltown Public Library, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa, Marshalltown Youth & Shelter Services, Animal Rescue League of Marshalltown, and the women’s health organization Guiding Star. Joining the Lions at their corner of the Hy-Vee gives them the opportunity to seed awareness of their organizations and share in the funds raised that week by the sale. “It’s really impressive how they’ve reached out to the other organizations to bring everyone together for the mutual benefit of the entire community,” says Long.

Sharing Saturdays is beneficial for the Lions, who maintain all these services with 23 active members. “It’s a scramble all the time to fill shifts,” says Fienup, who schedules Saturday volunteers. “Saturday is a tough day to get volunteers. If we can’t find someone that week, I put my hand up.” Roberts jokes, “We’re getting older. There aren’t many of us left who can carry 50-pound bags of popcorn!” The Lions’ work is still thriving, though.


Popping up to help others

The Marshalltown club also tends initiatives first planted by defunct service clubs, including the eyewear and hearing aid collection programs. “We have a presence in so many charitable activities here,” says Fienup. He’s also a board member at the Senior Citizens Center, which holds a public Trivia Night in conjunction with the Lions. The Lions’ popcorn is also available freely at movie nights at the Marshalltown Public Library, hosted by the local Big Brothers Big Sisters. “We have a lot of diverse and underserved kids at the movie nights,” says Sarah Rosenblum, Library Director. “[The Lions] are very supportive towards the library.” That level of support is sown into the soil of Marshalltown, Rosenblum notes.  “I’ve never lived anywhere where there’s such a spirit of cooperation and volunteerism and collaboration.”

A stalk of Iowa corn grows, on average, 8 feet in a year. If one grew for the entire existence of the popcorn fundraiser, it would be 376 feet high. The Lions’ work continues growing in Marshalltown, and the city’s response has always been open-hearted. Roberts remarks with admiration how often people will give the Lions more than the US$2 cost of popcorn. “Some people who don’t want a bag will give us money anyway, and some will buy them for kids who come in the store,” he says. “It makes you feel good to give and to see people giving.”