Making a Difference with Meals that Matter

By Ann Foster Thelen 

Prioritizing nutrition is always important and even more so when faced with a health challenge. Learn about an inspiring meal program created by the team at John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines. 

Going through a health situation can present many challenges. Among many things, adding doctors’ appointments and treatments complicates an already busy schedule for most people. It can take a toll on you personally and on loved ones.  

During these times, it’s essential to make nutrition a priority. After all, healthy bodies start with nutrient-rich foods. Whether supporting a friend or family member with a meal train or buying a grocery or restaurant gift card, gracious acts lift the spirits of those in need.  

In the spirit of the holiday season, it’s a joy to bring awareness to a community program that so positively impacts the lives of Iowans. 

Needs Inspire the Meals that Matter Program 

Perhaps nowhere is the need for patients to have nutritious meals more visible than in an actual healthcare setting. That’s where the UnityPoint Health® – John Stoddard Cancer Center team stepped up and created a fantastic program – Meals that Matter – that can inspire others to potentially emulate. 

To help support patients and families going through cancer, John Stoddard Cancer Center offers nutritionally balanced, ready-made meals for patients and their caregivers at no cost. The recipes were developed in conjunction with a Stoddard Cancer Center dietitian and internal food and nutrition team, and the menu features full entrees as well as soup and fruit options. 

“Thanks to the generosity of our community, meals are available twice a week for all patients visiting Stoddard for chemotherapy and radiation treatments and patients being discharged from the Powell 3 inpatient unit,” explains Sarah Zeidler, executive director at Stoddard Cancer Center. “This service helps ensure patients receive the nutrition they need to support healing and health.” 

Overcoming Roadblocks to Nutrition 

According to Zeidler, there are typically two major roadblocks to eating a proper diet based on specific health needs. One is cost and the ability to afford things like fresh fruits and vegetables. Another is access to certain foods, such as knowing and finding places where local produce can be purchased throughout the year. 

In addition to ready-made meals, Stoddard Cancer Center also offers a Meals that Matter at Home program to teach patients how to cook certain meals. 

“To launch our Meals that Matter at Home program, we partnered with Prudent Produce, an organic produce home delivery company. Each week for four weeks, our participants received a bin of fresh fruits and vegetables sourced locally,” explains Gina Mandernach, oncology outreach coordinator at John Stoddard Cancer Center. “An oncology dietitian provided them with recipes and a shopping list of what to make with the items in the bin. We also provided a $50 gift card to purchase pantry items or things that may not have been included in the bin to prepare the recipes.” 

Videos were also created and posted on YouTube so participants could watch the recipes being prepared. 

Tips and ideas for recipe substitutions, preparation tips, storage, food safety and things people would need to know about achieving certain dietary goals were all provided as well. Live events and cooking classes on a closed Facebook group facilitated two-way interactions, created engagement with the participants, and allows questions to be answered by the oncology dietitian,” Mandernach says.  

So far, Stoddard Cancer Center has offered the program twice in the past year. The first group included 49 cancer survivor participants in June, and they received enough donor funding to offer it again in the fall to 74 participants.  

“I was so thankful to be eligible for the Meals that Matter at Home Program. I have always wanted to try co-op membership but felt that receiving a box of random vegetables would be overwhelming. The oncology dietitian took the guesswork and stress out of this by providing recipes and easy-to-follow instructional videos, as well as a Facebook group providing tips and moral support,” says Cindy Hook, a participant in the program. “We reuse many techniques she taught us during the first session. And I am braver to try my own herbs, spices and preferences. This way, I am more likely to continue this healthy eating pattern after the program.” 

Melanie Travis, radiation oncology manager at Stoddard Cancer Center says, “I cannot believe the impact these meals are having on our patients. Words cannot express how this is a blessing for both the patients and the team members who hand these meals out. The donor is blessing more people in more ways than they could imagine.” 

"I’m so grateful for the Meals that Matter at Home program! Just having healthy fruits and veggies around makes me eat them. I’m very busy, not just with my recovery but also as a caregiver to my mother, who is also a cancer survivor. I often don’t have the time or energy to make sure I buy enough fresh fruits and vegetables for us, and the delivery services are too expensive. This program has helped me reignite old, good habits when it comes to grocery shopping.  

As is the case for many patients, now that my active treatment has concluded, many people assume that I’m “home free” and don’t need support. I’m also under 50, so people don’t tend to expect that I deal with cancer. The toll treatment takes is ongoing. In addition to physical limitations, psychological and emotional stresses persist. It has been incredibly helpful for me to be able to participate in Meals that Matter at Home at this stage of my recovery. I feel supported and encouraged, and the program contributes to my feeling that Stoddard is invested in my well-being for the long haul, not strictly during the time of active treatment." 

Melisa Klimaszewski, Meals that Matter at Home participant  



I have such a heartfelt feeling of gratitude for these meals. They made such a difference in our lives. Such a small thing, but it really has. Thank you to the donors who provide this assistance. It is just wonderful to think about everyone who cares about us, from the donors to the kitchen staff. These meals are much healthier than what we would have otherwise. It is such a relief not to have to worry about cooking. Plus, they are tasty meals! It has reduced stress for Bob as the caregiver. We feel so blessed. 

Carolyn Froah, Meals that Matter participant  






These meals help because you’re tired. It’s just one less thing to worry about and it was such a nice surprise.  

Regina Kaldenberg, Meals that Matter participant