Melissa O’Neil says you are likely to see more programs like those of Central Iowa Shelter & Services, where homeless people come to get a meal, training, a job and a bed.


The nonprofit runs its own agricultural operation, Mulberry Farms & Food, tucked in the southwest corner of downtown Des Moines near Des Moines Fire Station No. 1. Residents of CISS emergency housing help grow and harvest the food, and learn to prepare it in the organization’s job training program at Mulberry Street Cafe, the kitchen and dining operation downtown. That’s all in addition to a network of summertime meal sites served around the metro, a number that will soon hit 19.


“You are going to see more of these models popping up,” said O’Neil, CEO of CISS and a member of the Business Record’s latest Forty Under 40 class. “We are teetering on recession just because we don’t have a workforce. And we don’t have a workforce because of a lack of affordable housing.”


O’Neil’s group, largely through the strength of an Iowa Department of Education grant of federal funds and the help of volunteers and food donors, has become a refuge for homeless veterans and others who are turned away elsewhere because of substance abuse or mental health issues.


“You have to work pretty hard to get evicted from my place,” O’Neil said.


CISS provides emergency housing for up to 90 days, but looks the other way on that limit if someone is making progress toward a job and permanent housing. The agency helps with the job, paying a bit over minimum wage, which allows the resident to look for housing.


“Landlords want to see evidence of income,” something that has been a struggle for many, O’Neil said.


And sometimes that leads to a tough cycle. “Often people have to pick between eating and paying rent,” a cycle CISS is trying to help break by providing training (with the help of United Way of Central Iowa) and employment.


The idea of using food programs as job training sites is gaining ground and was central to a couple of important moments in Greater Des Moines recently.


Food truck pioneer Nick Kuhn and Justice League of Food are gearing up a job-training operation in the Hall building in West Des Moines for people who would work in the food and beverage industries, for example. And Iowa Homeless Youth Centers is working on a rooftop garden that will employ residents at its emergency housing downtown.


Mike Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, spoke about these issues in the latest Tomorrow Plan speech at the State Historical Building on March 26, and on April 3 the Harkin Institute tackled similar issues at a daylong event at Drake University.


That’s aside from the ongoing efforts of Polk County government, Capital Crossroads, Food Bank of Iowa, Eat Greater Des Moines, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, the Greater Des Partnership, the World Food Prize Foundation, the Des Moines Area Religious Council, many churches and others who are looking for ways to fight hunger, homeless and unemployment.


Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly said the work to address hunger is part of efforts to work on broader, related issues.


“There is no doubt that our community is thriving, but there are many individuals who have been left behind,” Connolly said. “We see that in the number of homeless and in the tens of thousands of people who struggle with food insecurity.


“Polk County has been dedicated to finding solutions to these problems,” Connolly said. “Unfortunately, there is no one easy solution - the problem needs to be addressed from many angles, such as affordable housing, improved transportation, wages and the cliff effect that we see with public assistance benefits.” “Cliff effect” refers to the result when a person goes to work and earns more income, and loses government aid in the process.


“There are organizations in our community who are trying to tackle all of these problems, but we need to do more collectively,” Connolly said. “For example, [Partnership for a Hunger Free Polk County] has done a great job of increasing the awareness about this issue and connecting people to food, but it does not solve the problem that put families in this position to start with. We need more commitment from all corners of our community to tackle these big issues. Without all of us working together, I’m afraid that the problems we see here will only continue to get worse.”


The Hunger Free website notes the need to address unemployment, too. “To address true hunger we can continue expanding food pantry availability and explore other programs that provide meals directly to those in need. However, the individuals who are food insecure would be better served by helping them improve their earnings, possibly through education or job training.”


O’Neil said there is a waiting list for the CISS training program, which drew 89 workers last year, 61 of whom found stable housing and jobs outside the program. There’s always at least eight in the program, working at least 20 hours a week.


The workers learn how to prepare and serve food, presentation, how to show up to work on time, how to dress well.


The program complements CISS housing that somehow managed to accommodate 234 people at one point last winter. There are 150 emergency beds, and 175 people stayed at the facility one night the first week of April, O’Neil said. There are dormitories where people sometimes sleep in chairs.


Outside, the organization runs a farm with a bold, geodesic dome that covers 750 square feet and yields 3,000 pounds of produce grown from seed and taken directly to the commercial kitchen on-site. The goal is 10,000 pounds this year.


DuPont Pioneer, now Corteva Agriscience, helped build the farm with its 30-foot growing dome and raised growing beds in 2014. The Master Gardeners of Iowa gave CISS a set of greenhouses in Altoona in 2018.


Ten apple trees planted near the fire station should begin producing this year, and O’Neil is optimistic the deer won’t eat all of them. Residents will be taught to prepare and can applesauce.


Residents also sometimes eat surplus food donated by various companies, though only food bought from the Food Bank of Iowa and other official channels is served around town, O’Neil said.


She’s fond of telling the story about how one of her staffers told her one day CISS was out of food. O’Neil basically said God would provide.


“I did that leaders prayer: ‘Really, lord, come on, throw me a bone.’ I didn’t have money to buy food. I remember telling [a colleague] we must lead by faith, not fear. God will provide,” O’Neil said.


Not long after, two semitrailer trucks of food arrived from the Solheim Cup, more than filling CISS’ storage. O’Neill called her friend Michelle Book, who runs the Food Bank of Iowa, and asked if they could use a semi and a half of food. Book gladly accepted.


Another time, the Food Bank got a pallet of fresh pork chops from a donor. Without a crew to turn the meat into individual packages, a staffer called CISS to see if the organization could use the meat. “Heck, yes!” O’Neil replied.


Not far from the garden, CISS plans to build 24 apartments out of shipping containers that will house chronically homeless people who otherwise might live in tents.


D.C. Central Kitchen, based in the nation’s capital, wanted to do more than pass out food, too. They wanted to improve the food offered by schools and nonprofits around the city, and employ people in the process, Curtin said. “We are about workforce development, about jobs, about business,” Curtin said.


One of Curtin’s main messages was that he is running a social enterprise, not a soup kitchen.


“When people first think of D.C. Kitchen, they think of food,” Curtin said. “That’s reasonable, because we put out about 10,000 meals a day. We are sourcing, preparing and distributing more food in a week in a half than you will eat in a lifetime.


“What that tells us is that if food were the answer, if food could solve hunger, we could get it done. Food will never end hunger. We will never feed our way out of hunger.”


Another key is to make the work about liberating the receiver of the aid, not about making people feel good about feeding the hungry, he added. D.C. Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger had realized this when he went with a group to feed the hungry, Curtin said.


“Somehow this exercise of charity and philanthropy, of giving back, of helping people in our community, had somehow become more about the redemption of the giver than the liberation of the receiver,” Curtin said. “Robert wanted to create a place that used food not as an end but as a means, a tool to get to a better place and fight hunger and ultimately poverty, but do it in a way that was entirely focused on liberation and creating opportunity.”


That is the type of thinking that has helped groups’ recent efforts from D.C. to Des Moines.

D.C. Central Kitchen is an organization that by definition hopes to put itself out of business. “We have a moral obligation to put ourselves out of business or fail trying,” Curtin said. “We need to be strong enough and courageous enough and unselfish enough to say, ‘Next! OK, it’s someone else’s turn.’ ”


At the Harkin Institute event, Executive Director Joseph Jones said: “To keep people healthy we need to have a system that supports health from the start. We need a food system that provides healthy food for generations to come. We need a system that supports local production and distribution, makes nutritious food available, accessible and affordable for all, and is equitable to protect the farmers, consumers and communities.”


Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, speaking at the same event, said it’s not enough to dish healthful food: “Health and nutrition efforts focus on one thing, the end result — improving the diet and food consumption of individuals but not focusing on the food system itself and the environmental context in which this food exists.  


“I think we all know that our current food system is not healthy,” Harkin said. “It’s dangerous for our environment and our planet, and they are contributing to the alarming rate of chronic disease we see among Americans.”


Harkin is the namesake of the institute at Drake, to which he donated his papers from his long D.C. career.


Capital Crossroads, the regional planning effort, started the Central Iowa Food Initiative to coordinate a wide range of nonprofit, governmental and business assistance for the food insecure. Capital Crossroads, in its materials, notes the importance of the issue.


“Many Central Iowa leaders feel that local food should be the region’s identity and a “big umbrella” for bringing together urban and rural interests. Making this a cross-Capital initiative will also provide the opportunity to incorporate existing activities like Hunger Free Polk County, Eat Greater Des Moines, the Iowa Hunger Summit, and many others into the Central Iowa Food Initiative. Many Central Iowa leaders feel that local food should be the region’s identity and a “big umbrella” for bringing together urban and rural interests.”


Eat Greater Des Moines is adding a full-time food recovery operations coordinator with the support of Hunger Free Polk County, and an Americorps worker to help with those efforts, said Executive Director Aubrey Alvarez. The organization matches food providers and nonprofits, for example, in part through an app called ChowBank. It also is establishing a program to drive the surplus food to nonprofits that can use it, a program that has allowed part-time WesleyLife drivers to work full time, for example.


Eat Greater Des Moines reports an estimated 110,000 people in Greater Des Moines are food insecure, and almost 30,000 are hungry regularly.


Part of the effort is to salvage food that otherwise would be wasted. Eat Greater Des Moines reports that 40% of food produced in the United States is wasted, and 20% of landfill space nationally is taken up by food waste, 7% of it in the original packaging.


“Breaking the cycle of poverty and moving individuals into self-sufficiency is the key to ensuring everyone in our community is able to thrive instead of just survive,” Alvarez said. “Within our community we have many organizations focusing on the multiple factors that all contribute to keeping 33% of Central Iowans in poverty. Poverty is a complex issue comprised of many factors - affordable housing, food insecurity, access to affordable child care and gainful employment, and it takes a variety of efforts to really make progress. United Way of Central Iowa’s OpportUNITY work recognizes the complexity and has eight different workgroups all working towards the same goal of ensuring 75% of central Iowans are self-sufficient by 2020.


“Data shows you cannot support yourself, let alone a family in Iowa on minimum wage,” Alvarez said. “That is why there is a focus on expanding the training and skills of those caught in the cycle of poverty so they can make the employment jumps necessary to move from minimum wage to the at least $14-$15/hour positions, even more if they have young children in need of child care. It is exciting to see programs like the Justice League of Food, Mulberry Farms and Iowa Homeless Youth Center’s rooftop gardens growing, literally. These programs recognize the value of access to healthy food, but also the value of meaningful employment.”