“Can we have more?” Two preschool boys, known to be troublemakers, were given free breakfast at their school, but they were still hungry.
While working as a substitute Teacher’s Assistant in her hometown last Christmas, Leah Rekow witnessed aharsh reality: Children are going to bed without enough to eat.
In addition to families not having enough food, wasting food is another issue. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February, it is estimated that 31 percent — or 133 billion pounds — of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply in 2010 went uneaten. That is 133 billion pounds of food that could have gone to feed preschool children who go to bed on an empty stomach or to the single mother who can’t afford to buy her daughter lunch every day. People are eager to help and willing to do their part, but most don’t know where to start. That’s where Zestos comes in.
Founded in 2008, Zestos is a nonprofit organization that shares resources with those in need. Volunteers drive around northwest Iowa to pick up leftover food from grocery stores and restaurants. Zestos’ main storage facility is in Alton, where the food is packaged into portions and placed in freezers until there is a need for it.
Zestos holds a monthly Shepherd’s Table, where people can come enjoy a free dinner and Christian fellowship. At the Alton location, there is a thrift store and resource center to help those struggling to find daily necessities. There is also a transitional housing facility to help community members in need reestablish themselves. There is also a thrift store located in Le Mars.
One of the faithful volunteers is John Kooiman. After his retirement in 2011, Kooiman was looking for something to fill up his free time. After searching, he stumbled upon Zestos and has been helping out there ever since.
Now the Transportation Director at Zestos, Kooiman oversees 10 other retired men who collect leftover food from several towns and then transport it to freezers in 14 churches in the area. This job has been an important part of Kooiman’s life that he is trying to get others involved in it as well.
“We want to be representatives of the Lord through giving food,” Kooiman said. “We want to give God the glory. We have extra food, so let’s give it to those who need it.”
Along with recruiting others to help, Kooiman has raised funds to support the program and continues to connect with the community while encouraging others to join in and help.
“We want to get more strong Christians to get involved,” Kooiman said.
He wants to get the word out that everyone is welcome to the Shepherd’s Table dinners to enjoy a meal together while sharing God’s Word. Zestos publishes a quarterly newsletter that is distributed to over 6,000 church members to encourage them to participate in events and donations of time, money, clothing or food.
Northwestern is involved with donating leftover food from the cafeteria. Sodexo’s General Manager Nedrick Price helped arrange for extra food from dinner to be packaged and stored in the kitchen’s freezer until Kooiman can pick it up on Mondays and Fridays.
Graduate Paul McCleary, along with Kendall Stanislav, RD of the North Suites, worked with Zestos to set up the donation schedule during the fall of 2013. When McCleary studied abroad in Costa Rica during the spring of 2014, students Sarah Morren and Brady Dyson kept the program going.
The process of packaging is fairly simple. Anyone who is interested in helping out meets in the back room of the kitchen when the cafeteria closes on Sundays (6:30 p.m.) and Thursdays (7:00 p.m.). Laid out on a table are containers of leftover food from the dinner. Volunteers are given gallon-sized storage bags and directed to fill the bag half full. The bags are stored in large storage bins and placed in the freezer where they wait for Kooiman or another Zestos volunteer to pick them up.
Packaging food doesn’t require a large number of students. Depending on the night, there could be only a few bins, so it would only take a few minutes. On busy nights, if there are roughly six people, it takes approximately 15 minutes to get the job done, instead of one person taking an hour doing it alone. This is one of the ways students can help out, even if personal recognition isn’t given for their volunteer work.
“Even if people don’t know who packaged the food, it’s about community,” Morren said. “It’s not about reward, it’s about community. That’s kind of big here.”
Rekow is now involved in Campus Ministries as the Hunger Ministries Coordinator. She has taken over the responsibilities of the food-packaging program this year with the help and guidance of Morren and Dyson.
After seeing those two preschool boys ask for seconds, Rekow knew her involvement could change lives.
“I’ve seen the effect hunger has on others in areas of life, and I want to be able to make a difference,” Rekow said.
She had been interested in Campus Ministry since she was a freshman and is now fulfilling her goal of helping others who might be less fortunate.
It takes an extra effort to help other people and Zestos expresses their appreciation of Sodexo and their willingness to donate.
“We are so grateful that NW is working with us to meet the needs of people who don’t have it very good around here,” Kooiman said.
The more people that help each week, the faster the process goes. To participate in the food packaging, contact Leah Rekow at firstname.lastname@example.org.