At the pandemic’s start, director Aubrey Alvarez and her two colleagues at Eat Greater Des Moines started to look at how their organization could fill gaps in access for metro residents. A barrier to sufficient service data meant the small staff had a limited view of how the community they serve is struggling, but the organization couldn’t wait around to begin work. 

“Obviously the need was high before COVID,” Alvarez said. “With everyone getting laid off, we recognized that not only was the need going to continue to rise, [but] that this need is going to stay at a high level for a long time. … There’s a lot more happening right now, but we’re going to need a lot more to happen for months, because this isn’t something that is going to get resolved very quickly.” 

The food rescue program was affected almost immediately in March — Eat went from having 40 drop-off locations to 10 across Polk, Dallas, Marion and Warren counties. Eat’s partnership with WesleyLife Meals on Wheels to deliver food rescue products had to be quickly reviewed to make sure drivers could safely do no-contact deliveries. In early April, Eat launched a fresh produce drop service every Tuesday and Thursday that provides food for up to 50 organizations in the region, who distribute to their clients. Alvarez estimates the produce drop has moved half a million pounds of food since it started. 

“Our highest priority was just trying to keep things moving safely. The last thing we wanted to have happen was everything to just stop,” she said. 

The organization’s lack of data has been one of its biggest challenges adjusting to post-pandemic service, but a new custom software being developed by Polk County’s IT department will help Eat and other Central Iowa advocates in the Greater Des Moines Food Rescue Network manage their food inventory, transportation and food requests. That software is still some time away from launch, but it will be available to businesses and other communities tracking their contributions to a wider food rescue network. 

With disaster recovery funding, Eat and the Des Moines Area Religious Council launched a pilot project to repackage bulk packages of food ordered by caterers, restaurants and canceled events, to deliver family-sized portions in the metro area. The organizations hired two local catering companies to manage the food handling and packaging in their kitchen space, before it is distributed by either Eat or DMARC’s food pantry network. The pilot is scheduled to end in late June, but organizers are looking at ways to continue it, Alvarez said. 

“There’s discounted products available, but it’s a 5-pound bag of cheese, or 100 pounds of pasta,” she said. “We just got a big donation of fresh fish, and 11,000 pounds of fish is a lot. … That’s allowed us to really stretch some of these bulk opportunities, because we don’t have the safe facilities for processing it.” 

Going forward, transportation will remain Eat’s greatest challenge, Alvarez said. The organization doesn’t own any vehicle fleets, and Eat is seeking businesses that have larger vehicles they’d be willing to contribute to help transport produce with on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

“The key for us is flexibility and grace. We like to give each other a lot of grace. Everyone’s doing their best,” Alvarez said.