Writer: Rachel Vogel-Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
In 2014, Joe Laslo (pictured above) of Kelly shattered his clavicle and six ribs in a bike accident. He ended up with a plate and nine screws holding his body together. The near-death experience was a wake-up call for the avid cyclist, and he wondered whether he should be doing something more with his life. Sitting in church one Sunday, Laslo had what he calls a “noetic experience.”
“That’s when you know that God’s spoken to you,” the 60-year-old Laslo explains. “God said, ‘Joe, you’re going to start a ministry to the homeless on your bicycle.’”
Through online research, Laslo discovered the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry in Memphis, Tenn. They gave him permission to use the name and the model, and UBFM Des Moines was born.
The organization quickly expanded, serving 1,500 food items a week, including burritos, sandwiches, fruit and granola bars—plus delivering donated supplies like blankets, hats, gloves and socks. With 50 volunteer riders and another 50 assembling meals at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church, UBFM could run seven routes through Des Moines on bikes and in cars, primarily downtown and on the north and south sides. On the street, they were dubbed the “burrito slingers,” a name they emblazoned on their bike jerseys.
Laslo serves as the CEO and “chief burrito slinger” while working full time at John Deere. Curt Carlson, a longtime volunteer and former board member, says Laslo has “great compassion for helping others and a strong sense of purpose.”
Born into a staunch conservative and religious family, Laslo’s beliefs have evolved over the years, and he says he’s “become a lot more open and accepting of the plight of the human race.”
UBFM’s mission is to “serve radical hospitality, one burrito at a time.” Often, the riders give people their only meal of the day. But the food is just the beginning. “The most important thing we do is build relationships with an overlooked and marginalized part of society,” Laslo says.
Laslo and other volunteers usually see the same homeless individuals week after week. They learn their first names. Some become trusted advisers. Others have gone on to serve as volunteer riders and route leaders.
“People know and trust us to meet them where they are in this crazy thing called life,” says Lori Caligiuri, a volunteer and board member. “We’re dispensing hope, one burrito at a time.”
When the pandemic hit, UBFM put their ministry on hold. They restarted at the end of June, assembling burritos outside and using prepackaged Uncrustables instead of homemade sandwiches. Laslo estimates a nearly 50% increase in the number of people on the streets.
After the pandemic ends, Laslo hopes to expand to different parts of the city and to the suburbs, where poverty and food insecurity are on the rise. The success of the ministry in Des Moines has led to other UBFM chapters in Dubuque, Chicago and St. Louis.
“The only thing I knew I had to do was start this,” says Laslo. “I knew that the God of my understanding would take it from there. And he’s taken it to amazing places.”
Iowa Stops Hunger is an 18-month initiative by dsm magazine and the Business Record to raise awareness of hunger in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.