Before 11 a.m., a line of people already had formed outside Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque as families scurried down the street from their nearby homes.

Although some needed to zip up their jackets and pull over their hoods, the steady rain shower did not seem to faze anyone who waited patiently to receive a free casserole from the business at 2811 Jackson St.

Tara Barnhart and her daughter Lainey Scott, 8, were last in line during the morning rush of people who huddled under the awning.


Barnhart said she learned about the free casserole pickup via social media and decided to give it a try. It would be one less meal she would need to dedicate time to making, she said.

“It’s just an easy dinner for us with (Lainey) being at school and me being home making lunches,” she said. “People are just low on income right now with the virus. A lot of people are home right now doing more with their kids, so it’s an easier break for dinner.”

Convivium held its first “take n’ bake” casserole pickup Thursday morning, aimed at families that are struggling with unemployment or other financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week — as it will for the next 10 Thursdays, then one last Wednesday — Convivium distributed 50 free casseroles between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and 50 more between 3:30 and 6 p.m.

“It’s heart-wrenching to think people aren’t eating, or they are not eating healthy,” said co-founder Leslie Shalabi. “I think the pandemic has pulled back the curtain. It has been here, and it is just exacerbated now.”

An online description of the effort states, “Amid the lingering pandemic and sky-high unemployment, food insecurity in our community continues to grow. As a nonprofit located in the heart of a food desert, Convivium’s mission is to make real food more accessible and affordable.”

Earlier this year, Convivium began working with local organization Project Rooted to assemble and hand out free sack lunches to children after schools shuttered in March to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. The organization now is working with St. Stephen’s Food Bank to distribute food and dairy boxes twice per month, Shalabi said.

But with cooking classes still canceled and the restaurant not serving its usual full menu, it needed to find a way to utilize the 3,000 pounds of produce that was ready to be harvested.

“We had been educating people on how to use those vegetables, and now we weren’t able to do that, so we thought why don’t we do it because a big part of healthy eating is knowing how to,” Shalabi said.

The meal distributed Thursday was a southwest chicken casserole featuring peppers, onions and tomatoes picked from the garden at Convivium, said Education Director Natalie Roling. Every casserole is precooked and only needs to be reheated.

“This has kind of been our new education piece — being able to provide healthy food, which is such a need not only in this area but in this time, and we are finding families are now looking for any kind of resources,” she said.

Roling said Convivium has secured funding to serve the meals for 12 weeks but asks people to fill out a demographic waiver to help the organization continue receiving support to keep the meal program going.

“We have been overwhelmed by the support and outreach in the community looking to get involved, whether that is volunteering or donating or sharing this with people who would benefit from it,” she said. “It’s really been incredible to see.”

When school was canceled in March, Denise Trierweiler and her son Oliver, 10, would stop by Convivium to pick up the sack lunches.

After she saw the Facebook post about the casseroles, Trierweiler decided to give it a try and was among the first wave of people waiting in the rain to pick up a meal Thursday morning.

“Times are tough for everybody, and they do a good thing here,” she said. “There are a lot of hungry families out there, and with Convivium being able to do this, they are meeting a need.”