Des Moines city and neighborhood leaders Monday expressed frustration that free hot meals weren’t getting to needy residents because of poor communication and the hours the food was offered.

Earlier this year, the Des Moines City Council designated $350,000 from a federal COVID-19 relief grant to be used to pay for free meals for residents living in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. The council also wanted the program to involve Des Moines restaurants that would receive money to prepare and help distribute meals. 

Charice Williams, of the Martin Luther King Jr. Park Neighborhood Association, told the council that most people in her neighborhood didn’t know about the free meal distribution. She said she just learned of the distribution planned for Tuesday.

“I’m just a little frustrated, obviously,” said Williams during a council workshop that was conducted virtually. “I’m not going to be able to get as many volunteers to come and help, and how am I going to get the word out to people?”

Linda Westergaard, who represents the northeast section of Des Moines on the council, said members of neighborhood groups in her ward weren’t notified of the free meal program, which has been operating for about two weeks.

“I can’t imagine that you were able to distribute very much food,” Westergaard told Melissa O’Neil, CEO of Central Iowa Shelter and Services. The city of Des Moines partnered with the nonprofit group in the meal distribution program.

O’Neil acknowledged that communication about the program needs improvement. During the first couple of weeks of the program, Central Iowa Shelter and Services didn’t widely promote the free meals because it wanted to give participating businesses an opportunity for “a trial run,” she said.

“We wanted to start slowly; we wanted to get our feet under us,” O’Neil told the council.

She said the organization is working with the city’s communication staff to better promote the program and to provide neighborhood groups with adequate notice of when the meals will be offered in their areas.

Westergaard also questioned why some of the free meals were offered during the early afternoon when many adults are at work. O’Neil said youths who received the meals also could take some home for their parents. She said the hours of distribution could be adjusted to late afternoon.

Currently, eight Des Moines restaurants or caterers are participating in the program. They are: 5 Spice Sisters, Big Red Truck, Catering Con Amor, El Fogon, Hotsy Totsy, Palm’s Caribbean Cuisine, Prep Kings and Tursi’s Latin King.

O’Neil said other restaurants could apply to take part in the program, which runs through Aug. 31. To participate, the restaurant must be located in Des Moines or the restaurant’s owner must be a resident of the city.

During the first couple of weeks of the program, between 50 and 125 meals were handed out at each site. Up to 400 meals per site could be distributed as more residents learn about the program, O’Neil said.

During the past three years, Central Iowa Shelter and Services has distributed free meals during the summer months to youths through a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That program is still operating in 17 locations across Des Moines, O’Neil said. The new program is primarily for adults, and new meal sites have been added including at the South Suburban YMCA and Southside Library, she said.

“There’s a senior housing and a low-income housing complex near the Y,” O’Neil said. “One individual told us, quote, ‘I didn’t know anybody cared about me.’ It actually had nothing to do with the food. It had everything to do with just being seen. … They had no idea that the city cared enough that they would provide a free meal to them.”

Learn where free hot meals will be distributed during the next two weeks.