Six days a week, 52 weeks a year, Iowa City’s Free Lunch Program continues to meet hungry neighbors where they are

Free Lunch Program co-directors Kai Kiser and Diane Platte — Zak Neumann/Little Village

An open door, a full plate, no questions asked.

It’s a simple, humble mission, but for everyone involved with the Free Lunch Program (FLP), from the diners to the directors, it is less about charity than collaboration, enriching the life of both server and guest.

This is a truth strongly felt by Diane Platte, one of FLP’s two directors.

“It’s one of the best parts of the job: to be around so many different people, all with such great intentions and good will.” Six days a week, 52 weeks a year, Platte conducts a volunteer chorus of nearly 1,000 individuals from dozens of local church congregations, business organizations and civic groups to perform something of a rhapsody in food: feeding more than 100 people in our community, every day, for free.

“We just negotiate and navigate and make it all work.”

Iowa City’s Free Lunch Program began one Lenten season nearly 40 years ago with parishioners from St. Mary’s and St. Thomas More who sought to embrace the acts of mercy Jesus describes in the Book of Matthew: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

Therapists from the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health provided insight into what the community lacked: a free noontime meal to those in need. The Knights of Columbus offered the use of their building and the fledgling FLP began serving once a month in January 1983. Six people attended. The following month, that number doubled, then again, and by 1989, with support from the United Way, FLP moved to the basement of the Wesley Center, where they could offer a free lunch six days a week to anyone in need. In 2011, the Crisis Center of Johnson County, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Johnson County, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program and FLP began work to bring their four organizations under one roof, and a fully-renovated building was dedicated in 2014.

Free Lunch Program volunteers prepare for the rush. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“I was always raised feeling very much like food was love, that food was community. I hope people feel that here,” said Kai Kiser, Platte’s co-director. It is something the FLP volunteers and every good chef or home cook understands: the joy and satisfaction which comes from nourishing someone else.

It’s also the beating heart which Kiser and Platte share with the other volunteer organizations who make up Iowa City’s ad hoc collection of culinary crusaders to ensure that every member of this community has access to a healthy meal, every day, free of charge. FLP offers lunch Monday through Saturday, while the Salvation Army just across the street on South Gilbert Court provides a free evening meal Monday through Friday. The Catholic Worker House on Sycamore Street offers a Saturday evening meal and a Sunday meal at noon. The Agape Cafe, located in Old Brick on the University of Iowa campus, provides a free breakfast each Wednesday morning.

“These congregations came together to fill the gap — literally just community members seeing work that needed to be done and doing it,” Kiser said.

If Platte is the conductor of the chorus of volunteers, Kiser is the producer of the show, collaborating with funding organizations and stakeholders like the City of Iowa City, Johnson County, the United Way and CommUnity Foundation to identify and meet the needs of FLP and their guests.

“One thing people don’t realize about nonprofit food services is that we have avenues for purchasing that are not available to the general public,” said Kiser, who, in less than a year at FLP, has learned quite a lot about how to stretch the nonprofit dollar. “A food bank would be able to buy a giant pallet of canned goods for a fraction of the cost you can get them for at the grocery store, so financial contributions really, really do go a long way for an organization like this.” Additional support comes in the form of local produce from Table to Table and canned goods and meat from the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP), but most of the food served to guests is purchased and prepared by the volunteer groups themselves.

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Kiser was not even born when FLP served its first free lunch, but they are no stranger to the social services scene in Iowa City. A native of Los Angeles, Kiser moved with their fiancée to Iowa City in 2015 to attend the university. They almost immediately got involved in nonprofit work as a youth development specialist at United Action for Youth, as a board member for Girls Rock! Iowa City and Pride Rock Iowa City, and, beginning in July 2021, as director of administrative operations at FLP.

When Platte and her husband Nathan made Iowa City their home, they brought their passion for music and community with them. Together with friends, they organized the Longfellow Neighborhood Front Porch Music Festival in summer of 2015 and have helped it grow each year. During the school year, Platte, an accomplished cellist, worked as the orchestra director of the Iowa City Regina Catholic Education Center. That is, until the challenges of 2020 changed the score.

“I looked at what my year as an orchestra teacher would look like and thought it was time to do something different,” Platte said. Her interest in sustainability and climate action led her to Green Iowa AmeriCorps and the Grow: Johnson County farm, which, in partnership with Table to Table, donates more than 25,000 pounds of fresh, local produce every year to relief agencies throughout the county, including FLP.

Around this same time, Jama Lidral, who had been FLP’s director of kitchen and volunteer operations since 2014, announced her plans for retirement. Though Platte had a contract with AmeriCorps, the position felt right for her. Platte applied and got the job, and AmeriCorps agreed to allow her to fulfill her commitment to them at FLP.

Diane Platte, Gale Kolbet, Colleen Schilling, Liz Croco and Mary Kelly wait for food to finish cooking on Wednesday on Dec. 8, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

FLP operates when most people are at work or in school, so volunteers are frequently retirees, who were particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. Instead of maintaining the communal table service, they rapidly transitioned to a “grab-and-go” model, reimagining the kitchen’s side door as a pedestrian drive-thru window.

“We strive to make everything we hand out compostable, in part because I do not want the remains of our meals to become plastic fossils that never decompose,” Platte said.

The clamshell containers are made with compostable bagasse, made from the fiber left after sugar cane is processed, and the utensils are made from sustainable, biodegradable bamboo. Plans are underway to add a compost pick-up at FLP so that, at the end of their meal, guests could simply put everything — unfinished food, plates, flatware and cups — into a single receptacle to be composted without waste.

During COVID a lot of our money has been going to compostable take-out containers and silverware,” said Kiser. But they emphasize that it was a necessary cost for FLP to remain consistent with their mission to do good in the community. It is a commitment to sustainability which, frankly, puts to shame the practices of most for-profit restaurants in Iowa City.

It also illustrates how unpredictable budgets can be for a nonprofit service like FLP, and how essential it is to raise money to meet changing needs. Along with support from government agencies and corporate contributions, tax-deductible donations from individuals comprise a substantial part of FLP’s budget. Often, though, these offerings provide far more than mere financial support.

“We have had a guest who just continues to amaze me. He was a guest here for years, and got back on his feet,” Platte explained. “Now he comes regularly, not to eat, but to bring us checks. The first check he brought was one of the checks you get when you first open a bank account, so basically, the first thing he did when he got that account was write a check to the Free Lunch Program.”

“I sometimes struggle just with the way things are — there is just so much injustice,” Platte continued. “The people who have, have so much, and the people who have nothing have so many difficulties, just challenges compounded by challenges. I can work to change the system, but at the same time I can make sure someone has a decent meal. As much as I want to help other people, this work is my way of managing that struggle of witnessing injustice.”

Colleen Schilling holds a crockpot of mixed veggies while Mary Kelly adds them to the foil baking pan on Wednesday on Dec. 8, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The doors at 1105 S Gilbert Ct are now reopened for in-person dining, and FLP hopes to see more people join them for lunch. Both Kiser and Platte hope to raise awareness in Iowa City’s immigrant community, where high rent or low pay can create financial hardship, and for families struggling to provide for their children.

“There is a lot that stops people from getting the help they need,” Kiser noted. “There is pride, there is the fear of taking from someone else. That’s an attitude we want to fight because there are so many people who could benefit from our services who would never think that they could come or should come.”

While many people in our community struggle with financial resources, there are also many who suffer from isolation and loneliness, painfully exacerbated during COVID by the need for social distancing. Kiser said FLP can help in this respect as well, “Because it’s really just being with people and seeing them and getting to know them. It’s how you learn to really love that part of your community.”

Both Platte and Kiser encourage people to come curious about those members of our community who, far too frequently, folks assume they “know” already. The first step in dismantling prejudice — about the unhoused, about the marginalized, about those who are different — is to break bread together.

“I think the greatest thing a person can do is to come get lunch,” Kiser said. “This is our community, and the people who eat here are part of our community. They are worth knowing.”

And so that 40-year-old offer stands, every Monday through Saturday at noon: an open door, a full plate, no questions asked.

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.