Meals from the Market

Writer: Mathany Ahmed

At Iowa’s largest farmers market, some 25,000 visitors come to see 300 vendors every Saturday morning from May through October in downtown Des Moines. Over the course of the season, tons of fresh produce, baked goods, artisanal cheeses and locally sourced meats pass hands from producer to consumer.

Part of the market’s magic is in its fleeting nature. Corn picked off the stalk today can’t be sold next week, and those locally grown peaches will only be perfectly ripe for a few days.

So what happens to all the food that goes unsold?

In 2008, a group of volunteers came up with a plan to solve this dilemma. They decided to collect leftover food from market vendors and get it into the hands of people who need it.

The group founded the Meals from the Market program, which operated its first full season in 2009. Since then, the volunteer-led collaboration between the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) and market organizers from the Greater Des Moines Partnership have rescued more than 370,000 pounds of fresh food. That’s enough to provide about 440,000 meals for people in need.

“A lot of people are struggling with the cost of living and are approaching the end of the month wondering, Where are the funds going to come from for my food?” said Blake Willadsen, DMARC’s marketing and communications manager. “This is a way to afford having enough food in the pantry and on the table.”

How it works

Just before the market closes, DMARC volunteers go from booth to booth, loading up carts with donated food before hauling it to one of the food pantries throughout the metro.

“There are times when those volunteers come back to the tent, needing another wagon because the first one got so full,” said Elizabeth Weyers, who manages the market on behalf of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

Thanks to the market’s diversity, those wagons often contain culturally specific foods that DMARC usually can’t buy in bulk.

“Food insecurity is more pressing than it’s ever been in our community,” said Willadsen, noting that 65,000 people visited a pantry in 2023, a record. “The thing that has been really challenging is that 1 in 3 of those people are visiting a DMARC food pantry for the first time.”

DMARC is an interfaith charity organization that operates 14 food pantry sites across the metro, each of which guarantees access to household staples, such as rice, canned fruits and vegetables and some protein options. Nobody who visits walks away empty-handed.

The nonprofit moved into a new warehouse facility in the spring of 2022, which enabled the team to accept large donations.

Roughly 20% of DMARC food pantries are stocked from food rescue programs like Meals from the Market. Food is also rescued from big-box stores that donate food that’s been handled safely but isn’t fit to sell for other reasons. “We’ll get a large donation of something like strawberries or watermelon, where those items had just been stored at a degree or two lower during the refrigerated transportation,” Willadsen said.

Meals from the Market also helps DMARC provide more nutritious options, which has been a priority for the organization ever since it worked with Iowa State University to study the health impacts of its offerings.

“The donations we receive from this program continue to be such a bright spot every year, for both our food pantries and the folks visiting them,” Willadsen said. “It’s always something we look forward to, and we know that it’s going to make a difference.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

  • Show Comments (0)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You May Also Like

Tomatoes, now and later

Writer: Mary Jane Miller It’s summer in Iowa and our farmers markets and gardens ...

Principled Produce

Mari Hunt Wassink (left), Dan Hogan (center) and Jake Kundert work in Grow: Johnson ...

Novel Experiences in Southeast Asia

A group of Iowans visited Cambodia’s legendary Angkor Wat, a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex that ...