Writer: Mathany Ahmed
Five days a week, rain or shine, Meals on Wheels employees and volunteers deliver more than 1,000 freshly prepared lunches to older Iowans, veterans and others with limited mobility. For many, this single-serving meal constitutes two-thirds of their daily food intake. WesleyLife, which operates the program in Central Iowa, delivered approximately 350,000 meals last year.
Even so, that still isn’t enough to meet the increasing needs of an estimated 9,000 Iowa seniors who don’t have enough to eat. “We’re serving 1,600 people a year, but where are those other folks?” said Shannon Draayer, WesleyLife’s director of health and well-being. “And more importantly, how can we reach them?”
Part of the solution is a new facility that will triple the number of meals WesleyLife can deliver. The building at 3206 University Ave., the former home of Drake University’s School of Education, underwent a complete remodel and opened Nov. 1. The main floor houses a new 5,000-square-foot kitchen filled with gleaming appliances and an abundance of storage, which is critical to accommodate gluten-free or other specialty diets. A new loading dock streamlines the delivery process and stores the pet food that’s delivered on Wednesdays. The hydroponic farm on the lower level, managed by full-time agronomist Aaron Thorvaldsen, will grow up to 20,000 pounds of fresh produce for both Meals on Wheels and Hugo’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, an on-site restaurant that will open to the public this spring.
“If you’re homebound, how are you getting fresh, locally grown, high-quality produce?” Draayer asked. “We want to reach people who are not only food insecure, but also nutritionally insecure.”
Philanthropist Suzie Glazer Burt kickstarted the expansion with a $1.05 million donation, part of $11 million in funding from individual and corporate donors, as well as city, county and state funds. WesleyLife hopes the new space will be a place for the community to gather and combat food insecurity.
Large windows into the hydroponic farm and kitchen will enable restaurant diners to watch volunteers tend to produce and prepare meals. After hours, visitors can tour an exhibit that sheds light on Iowa’s hunger challenges. Upstairs, visitors will find a rentable space for cultural and educational workshops and other events for all ages.
And that, Draayer said, offers a two-for-one deal that combats loneliness as well as hunger. She mentioned a recent survey from the U.S. Surgeon General that warned against the serious health risks of isolation.
“You need that social connection,” she said. With the new space, “we’re able to invite people into our mission.
Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.