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Urban Bike Food Ministry: Handing Out Burritos and Hugs

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  It's not unusual to see cyclists on the roads and trails on a summer night in Des Moines.  But one group of riders is on a mission to feed people who might otherwise go to bed hungry.

The night begins at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church.  There are no services inside.  Instead, you'll find dozens of cyclists ready to serve others.  They begin in the church kitchen, making hundreds of burritos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  The food, some water and clothes are loaded into backpacks, Burleys and saddle bags.

"This is the Urban Bike Food Ministry," yells Joe Laslo.

He tries to corral the group from a makeshift pulpit - a chair he's climbed on to.  Joe's official title is CEO, but you can call him just about whatever you want if you're here to help.

"Actually, I'm the chief bottle washer.  I'll do whatever it takes to keep things going."

He came up with this idea in 2014, after being seriously injured in a biking accident.

"God told me, 'Joe you’re going to start a ministry for the homeless on your bicycle and I found out there’s a lot of homelessness and food insufficiency in the Des Moines area."

The group rolls out on seven routes every Thursday night.  The cyclists hand out food, clothing and toiletries to anyone who needs it.

"Rain or shine, hot or cold, when we can do it on our bikes, we do," says Joe.  "But when it gets cold in the wintertime we take and put everything in cars."

Some of the stops include subsidized housing facilities.  Nathan Pinkerton lives in the Elsie Apartments downtown.  He and many of his neighbors are disabled and unable to work.  They're among the 12-percent of Americans who are food insufficient.  In Polk County, that's about 55,000 people.

"It's hard to make it on a limited budget," says Nathan.

Joe knows what that's like.  UBFM survives on donations, a few grants and a lot of loyal volunteers, like Curt Carlson, one of Joe's coworkers.

"There were just a couple of us when it first started," says Curt.  "Joe and I would make burritos in the back room at John Deere."

As UBFM grew, so did Curt.

"I grew up being nervous and tentative about the homeless.  I remember my parents telling me to roll up the windows and look straight ahead in certain neighborhoods in Des Moines.  You’ll find they’re just people too.  They’re just in need.  Some have made a few bad decisions, some of them have had a few bad breaks."

This ministry doesn't judge.

"That’s not what it’s about," says Joe.  We’re here to build relationships and that’s really what we do."

Whether it's delivering a burrito, a handshake or a hug, this ministry is simply about serving others.

"I really can’t wait to get out here," says Joe.  Sometimes I get some hugs from some folks who might not have had a shower or they might be a little high or drunk, but it’s the best hug I get every single week."