Delivering a Gift of Hope
By Jeff Hutton, Iowa Soybean Association
Photo credits: Meals from the Heartland
“Everyone deserves a hunger-free life.”
That’s the clarion call from Meals from the Heartland (MFTH), a non-profit, faith-related organization that, since its inception, has packaged more than 230 million meals for those in need in more than 40 countries.
Since 2008, thousands of volunteers and donors from businesses, schools, churches and the community have rallied around the West Des Moines organization. Their mission is to serve malnourished and hungry people in Iowa, the U.S. and countries worldwide.
The Need Is Great
MFTH Director of Development Joy Johnson says the mission remains clear after 15 years. “Our mission is to empower people to save starving children,” she says.
That mission began in 2007 at a food-packaging event held during the Lenten season at a West Des Moines church that wanted to help with the hunger struggle in Haiti. The event was so successful that organizers made a leap of faith and established MFTH, a 501(c)3 program, the following year.
From there, MFTH grew. At the organization’s first annual Hunger Fight, 12,000 volunteers packaged more than 4 million meals in a week. The organization has grown because of the commitment of its volunteers and donors. “We are blessed to have these folks because they know how great the need is,” Johnson says.
And the need is great.
According to the World Food Program, 783 million people globally are facing chronic hunger; in the U.S. that number is roughly 44 million people. In Iowa, 1 out of 8 adults (238,000 people) is impacted by hunger. “It’s a constant battle,” Johnson says.
MFTH and its allies are making a dent in hunger and changing lives. In 2023 alone, MFTH distributed more than 21.4 million meals, including 17.4 million internationally, 2.86 million across the U.S. and 1.15 million in Iowa.
The organization produces two special meal formulas developed by food science and nutrition professionals to supplement nutritional needs.
The Hearty Pack combines rice, soy protein, vitamins, minerals and dried vegetables — carrots, onions, tomatoes, celery, cabbage and bell peppers. It contains six servings and is generally distributed globally, most often to orphanages and schools. The Taco Mac is typically distributed in the U.S. and features enriched pasta, soy protein, and a vitamin- and mineral-fortified cheese mix. It also contains six servings.
Both meals cost approximately $1.74 to package. Despite the simplicity of the meals’ contents, both are nutritionally complex and well-balanced.
The packaged meals rely on soy protein, sourced from Cargill in Cedar Rapids, as the main component to deliver the protein needed in people's diets.
Volunteers at the Forefront
More than 600,000 volunteers have helped package MFTH meals, gathering at the organization’s headquarters or meeting through mobile outreach efforts at churches, schools and other locations.
“The volunteers are amazing,” Johnson says. “Without them, we would be unable to do what we do.” And she says it’s a cross-section of people. “We welcome volunteers with different types of backgrounds. We welcome folks from assisted living, retirement communities and special needs groups. It’s a well-rounded effort, and anyone is welcome. We appreciate all from different walks of life.”
Partners Provide Hope
But it’s not just the volunteers.
Johnson points to numerous distribution partners embedded in communities that face hunger every day. Meals are shipped out nationally and globally through partners like Convoy of Hope and Midwest Food Bank to organizations such as Many Hands for Haiti, Blessman Ministries, the Salvation Army and others that help get the meals into the hands of hungry children and families.
“Through our partners, we’ve made great strides,” Johnson says, adding that programs like Convoy of Hope create school-feeding initiatives, and MFTH is there to help. “The idea is that we can help provide a meal of hope. Not only does it feed the belly, but it also feeds the mind, and hopefully it can help break the cycle of hunger and poverty.”
In Central Iowa, MFTH partners with the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) food pantry network, Des Moines Refugee Support, Waukee Christian Services, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa, the Food Bank of Iowa, dozens of church-affiliated food pantries and more. In Eastern Iowa, partners include Hawkeye Area Community Action Program and the River Bend Food Pantry. “We package the meals locally, but the ability to reach those in need through our wonderful partners is incredible,” Johnson says.
Along with partners and volunteers, MFTH relies on financial donations from corporations, businesses, community organizations and individuals to buy the food the volunteers package. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that we have to pay for the food and supplies; the ingredients are not donated,” Johnson says. “For us to be successful, what is really needed is for these two things to be balanced — volunteers and donations.”
More to Do
The organization’s volunteers and donors, as well as numerous partners worldwide, understand that the effort to help feed hungry children is about paying it forward.
But more can be done.
MFTH is always looking for more volunteers and to establish more packaging events locally or “on the road.” Johnson says, “We have nine shifts at the office every week, and people can sign up on our website. Or they can reach out to us, and we can bring the ingredients to them and host a packaging event — be it a church, school, wherever.” She continues, “A Meals from the Heartland packaging effort is rewarding and meaningful, but it’s also a fun experience.”
A Glimmer of Light
Without question, hunger remains a staggering issue both locally and globally. “The fight against hunger requires all hands on deck,” Johnson says. “But our generous community really understands that, and they want to be a part of the greater mission. Meals that are delivered to people in need provide them with a glimmer of light. Delivering a meal is delivering a gift of hope.”
To learn more about volunteering or donating, call 515-473-9530 or visit their website.