DMU uses Healthiest State award to benefit local shelter

When Des Moines University received a 2019 award in the large workplace category from Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative in February, it also got a $1,000 prize to contribute toward a health and wellness-related project. The University recently donated the money to Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS) for the purchase of garden tools and supplies.

Presenting its $1,000 Healthiest State award to CISS’s Melissa Gradischnig, third from right, are Nicole Frangopol, DMU wellness specialist; Joy Schiller, director of wellness; Troy Dolmetsch, an osteopathic medical student and president of the Preventive Medicine Club; Hanna de Geest, community and public affairs manager; and Phil Blumberg, M.H.A., executive director of the DMU Clinic.

“DMU chose CISS to be the recipient of the Healthiest State prize money knowing how dedicated they are to expanding their gardens and greenhouse so their residents have better access and opportunities to eat nutritious foods at the meals served daily,” says Joy Schiller, M.S., CHES, director of wellness at DMU. “Without the produce from their gardens and greenhouse, many of the residents would have little access to fruits and vegetables, which can put them at risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

“From a wellness perspective, we understand that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables daily can help reduce the risk of many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity,” she adds. “It’s important to us to support their garden/produce initiative knowing potentially how many individuals can benefit from the fresh produce.”

The Healthiest State Initiative is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization driven by the goal to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation. It seeks to engage worksites, communities, schools, retail food vendors, organizations, institutions and individuals to improve health and happiness and ultimately achieve its goal. The initiative’s Healthiest State Annual Awards recognize communities, workplaces, schools and individuals from across the state. 

CISS began in 1992 after five men died on the streets of Des Moines. They were intoxicated and thus denied stay at other areas shelters, even though it was winter. In response, a group of eight churches, Churches United, served as a travelling winter homeless shelter, each taking weekly turns hosting anyone needing a place to stay.

Now, CISS is a 42,000 square-foot facility in downtown Des Moines with 150 emergency shelter beds, 19 rooms for veterans and 38 Section 8 Project-based efficiency apartments. It has an on-site health clinic, food pantry, clothing closet, classrooms, laundry and shower facilities. Group counseling, individualized case management and other services support CISS’s mission of sheltering those who need it and facilitating their move toward self-sufficiency. Thanks in large part to donations and thousands of service hours provided by volunteers, CISS provides shelter and services to more than 2,000 men and women per year.

“Our goal is to help individuals obtain housing and employment,” says Melissa Gradischnig, CISS volunteer/donations coordinator. “We are the biggest shelter in Iowa and the only one that is open 24/7.”

CISS’s growing dome’s greenhouse temperatures steam up a camera lens – but house numerous produce plants.

CISS’s kitchen serves approximately 800 meals a day. Much of the food is donated, provided by local restaurants and “rescued” from organizations and events that have leftovers. The shelter also generates vegetables with a garden and a 30-foot greenhouse growing dome.

“This past year, we harvested 10,000 pounds of food. Our goal for 2020 is 15,000 pounds,” Melissa says. DMU’s Healthiest State prize money will support that effort.

“Our hope is that the prize money will help CISS expand their gardens by purchasing new garden tools and plants for the 2020 growing season,” says Joy. “In the spring, gardening events will be scheduled for DMU students and faculty/staff to volunteer to help plant, maintain and harvest produce from their gardens.”

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