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Des Moines food pantry expands to meet rising food insecurity

Kassidy Arena
Emily Webb (lleft) and Matt Unger pose for a photo in the new DMARC pantry in Des Moines. It's still under construction and they've raised one quarter of their capital goal.

The Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) is launching its capital campaign called “Food Today, Change Tomorrow,” to help fund its expansion—both in physical location and program offerings.

Leadership said over seven years, they’ve seen an 81 percent increase in the people in need of their food pantry services. They said the best way to accommodate that growth of food insecurity was to move to a location with triple the amount of space. Their current facility is at 1435 Mulberry St. in downtown Des Moines. The new one under construction is at 100 Army Post Road in south Des Moines.

“Just the idea that we were going to have to leave behind anyone in need, because of space just wasn't okay with us. And we didn't think it'd be okay with the community either," DMARC’s Chief Executive Officer Matt Unger said.

In the past, Unger added they've had to turn away food donations simply because the other location could not fit the extras. He recalled a time when an organization dropped of pounds and pounds of fresh strawberries, but the Mulberry location couldn't properly store them all. At the Army Post Road location, a splendor of strawberries would not only be welcomed, but also accepted all at once.

Emily Webb, a DMARC board member and the chair of its capital campaign cabinet, said DMARC so far has raised a little more than 25 percent of its $5.5 million goal. If they can sell their Mulberry location, Webb estimated that will add about $3 million more to reaching their goal.

Kassidy Arena
DMARC plans for a farmer's market-style food pantry in its new location. Some staples, like peanut butter, will be available to households on a weekly basis, but fresh produce will be available daily.

“We knew there was a food insecurity problem in central Iowa before COVID hit, but COVID just exacerbated the problem. And we've been seeing the effects of that. So having this space and the ability to serve the population that needs to be served, it’ll be something that…Our mission is to meet the basic human needs of the Des Moines population and that’s going to allow us to actually meet our mission," she said.

Unger and Webb said DMARC has received an unanticipated amount of support—more so than they were expecting. The campaign itself: 'Food Today, Change Tomorrow' is actually twofold, Unger said. Part of the meaning is self-explanatory. If individuals and families get food today, they won't be hungry tomorrow. The other side is related to policy.

When people use the food pantry, DMARC gathers some basic information which will be used to bring perspective to policy makers. They may ask for some sort of identification (many forms are accepted) and what a household's income is. This in turn, Unger said, may be helpful in creating future policies to address food insecurity.

"There's a lot of rhetoric around why people might be food insecure. And I think that helps dispel some myths about people not working hard enough, when really, it's that they're working really hard. And they might have two jobs, but that they're not getting paid enough to afford food. So I think us collecting this data can really show the true situation that people are in and how dire it really can be," Webb added.

DMARC does not inquire about immigration status or share the specifics of their questionnaire with outside organizations.

The new location offers more office and meeting spaces in addition to food storage/delivery space. This will allow them to host more volunteers and add on to the on-site food pantry. There is another food pantry in Des Moines' southside, but Unger said he hopes DMARC will be able to help take some of the strain off of them. He said DMARC will be able to offer some atypical hours in the evenings and on weekends.

DMARC is also currently looking for partner nonprofits to lease about 6,500 square feet of space. The project is slated to finish in early 2022.