The Food at First program is a local food pantry and meal program that, with the help of some local businesses and Iowa State, serves the people of Ames.
Seven days a week, Food at First provides hungry citizens of Ames with a free meal made up of food from local businesses and ISU Dining that otherwise would have been thrown away, no questions asked.
Food at First is a two-part program. First, there is a daily, communitywide meal where people can come and receive a free meal from the leftover food that is donated to Food at First from area businesses. Second, there is a free grocery market, which has distributions three times per week. Both services are open to anyone who wants to come.
“We’re a no questions asked program,” said Chris Martin, director of the Food at First program. “Whether people come for a free meal, or whether people come to get groceries, we don’t have any limitations on that; anybody can come.”
Six or seven days per week, Food at First runs a route around Iowa State’s campus dining facilities and picks up pre-packaged food that is days away from expiring and uses that food as their supply for customers.
The majority of the food that ISU Dining donates to Food at First is what they call commissary products.
“It’s mainly what we call our commissary products, so those things you see in cafes that are in the plastic containers,” said Brittney Rutherford, marketing coordinator for ISU Dining. “I think there has been some work with catering off and on, but our main stuff is our commissary products that you’ll find in retail: wraps, salads, sandwiches, yogurt, fruit cups, yogurt parfaits, things like that.”
Many ISU students even get involved by volunteering with Food at First. Some students help out by distributing groceries at the free market, some sign up to work at the meal program, and some campus groups do even more.
“We have various Iowa State groups who host full meals; they will be the head chef, all the food prep people and all the people that do serving and cleanup also,” Martin said.
Even though ISU Dining does have an outlet for their food that doesn’t get eaten, minimizing waste while still providing equal eating opportunities for students is an important goal.
“Yes, the goal is definitely to give your customers at the end of the day enough variety to feel like we’re meeting their needs, but also minimize as many leftovers as we can,” Rutherford said. “It’s not a perfect science and that’s why with this program; it’s a really good partnership.”
Martin said there are a lot of reasons why the Food at First Program is important.
“We’re keeping food out of the landfill, we’re feeding people, we’re providing volunteer opportunities to people and we’re the only community meal program in Ames," Martin said.
The daily free meal is served in the evening at First United Methodist Church in downtown Ames and the free grocery market takes place Monday and Thursday from 5 to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 to 10:30 a.m. at 116 Washington Ave.