Department members work to combat hunger, food waste

Once a week, John Schroeter, professor and director of graduate studies, makes an early morning stop at the west Ames Hy-Vee. He heads to the bakery department, but he’s not there for a cruller and a cup of coffee. He’s there for his weekly pickup of bread and other baked goods that have passed their sell-by dates.

“Normally, all of this stuff would simply go into the dumpster, but Hy-Vee has agreed to set it aside for Food at First. On my Tuesday morning pickup, it typically amounts to about three shopping carts full to the brim with bread,” he said. “After picking it up in the morning, I swing by the church at some point later in the day to deliver it.”

Schroeter, along with other former department faculty, is doing his part to combat the two-pronged problems of hunger and food waste in the Ames area. Instead of perfectly edible food going to waste, it’s collected by volunteers called “gleaners.” They transport the food to the First Christian Church where others use it to prepare one of the free daily meals the Food at First program provides for anyone in need.

Started as an outreach activity of the First United Methodist church in 2003, the Food at First program now serves free meals seven days a week, with the help of volunteers and many members of St. Cecilia Church, First Christian Church and Trinity Reformed Church. What isn’t used for the meals is distributed to anyone who shows up at one of the two locations of the program’s Free Market food pantry.

ISU Dining, Walmart, and several other organizations donate outdated produce, dairy, and meat, in addition to baked goods. And several volunteers donate time and energy to raise fresh produce in the church garden.

Former economics department faculty are also long-time volunteers. William Edwards, emeritus professor, and his wife, are members of First United.

“We volunteered with the program to help prepare and serve food, and clean up afterward starting about 10 years ago,” said Edwards. “Other people contributed prepared food dishes. It gradually grew to a daily service, and through some outstanding volunteer efforts and cooperation from various food providers around Ames, the collection and distribution of leftover food items started. Now my wife and I pick up extra items from the Memorial Union on campus two or three times a month.”

“What we like about the project is that anyone can get a meal or surplus food items, no questions asked, no eligibility requirements, no limits. It also creates a certain camaraderie among the people who take advantage of the program, and allows them to obtain more information about other services that are available in the Ames area.”

Emeritus Professor Robert Jolly also donates his time and effort.

“I started picking up food donations in October, 2010, shortly after I retired. Our church started the Food at First program so I was familiar with it and volunteered from time to time with meal preparation, serving and clean up. After the food pantry got started – the Free Market, as we call it – the organizers needed someone who could drive a truck to help pick up donations from Walmart. These were fairly big loads – 2000 to 4000 pounds two times a week. Steve Brock, the realtor, donates his moving truck for our use.”

“I drive truck, load and unload food donations, occasionally, put the donated food on the shelf or in the refrigerator or freezer. My volunteer time varies from four to six hours a week depending on need and my availability.”

Jolly believes in the program’s value to the community. But he also gets a lot out of it personally.

“I just think it’s a good idea. This program helps alleviate often invisible hunger in a white-collar town. It feeds people, reduces food waste and keeps food out of the landfill. I also like the absence of means testing, applications etc. People can show up and go shopping no questions asked. I enjoy the physical work and I enjoy the folks I work with. It is interesting for me to work on the other end of the food chain.”

To find out more, donate, or get involved with Food at First, you can go to their website