Food Trucks and Farmers’ Markets

Local non-profit is filling the gaps in Des Moines’ food distribution system

By Samantha Jones

The Des Moines area is a desert.

Not a sandy desert, with camels and blazing hot temperatures and water mirages far in the distance, of course. But a food desert.

The USDA classifies a food desert as any urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food. In urban settings, this includes any area with no access to a grocery store within one mile, and within ten miles in rural areas.

In the Des Moines area alone, there are three USDA-classified food deserts: one stretching from the Des Moines river to the Iowa State Fairgrounds; another surrounding the state Capital, Waterworks Park and Gray’s Lake Park; and a third food desert near the Des Moines airport. Even in areas not technically classified as a food desert, other logistical factors play a role, such as busy highways between neighborhoods and shopping areas. Though the grocery store may technically be within one mile, the highway prevents low-income shoppers from walking and from the store.

According to data collected by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, 13 percent of Polk County’s population was unable to afford balanced meals in 2017. That’s over 55 thousand people in total. But the issue isn’t that there’s no food—it’s just not being distributed effectively.

Ultimately, it all boils down to two main issues: distribution and accessibility. While producers have more than enough food on their shelves, people who need the food have no way of getting to it. Eat Greater Des Moines, a local non-profit organization that builds community partnerships around food, is looking to tackle both of those issues. Through their “Food Rescue” program which began in April, the non-profit has been connecting excess food from local businesses to low-income families in the area. The program includes a partnership with Kum and Go, where they collect the gas station’s excess food and take it to areas in Des Moines where access to a grocery store or food pantry is limited.

map of Des Moines-area food deserts (in green).

“We’ve started working with affordable housing apartment complexes where the driver drops the food off with the landlord, and the landlord makes sure residents know about the food and can come and get it,” said Aubrey Alvarez, Executive Director for Eat Greater Des Moines. “[These] locations that aren’t a food pantry, they aren’t a free meal site, but they definitely have clients who are food insecure.”

Eat Greater Des Moines picks up the excess food from Kum and Go on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and then takes the food to recipient locations, where the food can be safely stored and accessed by people who need it. According to Alvarez, this consistency is key for both the donor and the recipients.

“For Kum and Go, they always know they’re going to have someone stopping by on those days to pick up the food, and at the same time, these recipients and their clients have some consistency,” Alvarez said. “So you don’t see as much of the hoarding, where people feel like they should take as much as they can because they think that’s going to be it. Instead, there’s that consistency, where they know there’s going be more on Wednesday, there’ll be more on Friday, and you’re welcome to come and get it.”

“We’re just trying to make connections between all of those pieces…it’s all about partnership and collaboration so we can address some of the gaps in the system.”

But the issue of food distribution isn’t just a problem for low-income individuals—farmers and local producers are having difficulty getting their food into the hands of Des Moines residents. While large agricultural companies have often have insurance for their crops and partners who take on marketing and distribution, small-scale producers have to do everything themselves. This makes it difficult to get their produce out in front of customers. Eat Greater Des Moines has been working alongside these producers and small-scale farmers by finding resources to aid their work and increase visibility so the Des Moines community knows they exist.

“It’s more of that local producer side,” Alvarez said. “We’re really trying to let more people know about community supported agriculture—farms, farm stands, farmer’s markets, etcetera. People are maybe aware of maybe one or two [farmer’s markets], but not that there’s almost thirty in our region.”

The ultimate goal, Alvarez says, is to foster a community where food producers and consumers can work together for mutual benefit.

“We’re just trying to make connections between all of those pieces…it’s all about partnership and collaboration so we can address some of the gaps in the system,” Alvarez said. “Our hope is that through that initial relationship, [the community] would build a more regular relationship. The goal is that both sides are benefiting.”

Samantha Jones