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Des Moines non-profit collecting face masks for farm workers

Article cover photo
Emily Sinnwell of Proteus Inc., delivers food and medical supplies to farm workers outside of Iowa City.

By Katie James, ISA public relations manager

While the growing season gains momentum so grows the farm labor workforce throughout the Midwest. With the risk of COVID-19 in mind, farmers and farm workers don’t have the option of staying home.

One Des Moines-based organization is working to mitigate risk for these essential workers. Proteus Inc, a 40-year-old non-profit supporting agricultural workers with healthcare and educational resources, is collecting face masks to distribute to farm workers in need.

“We started getting requests from farm workers going to work without masks,” said Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, CEO of Proteus. “We had an innovation meeting in the office and a case manager came up with the idea to ask for mask donations. We ran with it.”

An innovation meeting is an initiative Hoffman-Zinnel implemented a few years ago to foster creativity and brainstorming in the organization. It consists of an open invite to anyone interested, with the catch being each person must come with at least one idea. He says ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, so bouncing ideas off each person helps concepts thrive.

And a fruitful idea it was. Since initiating the mask donation program in mid-April, over a thousand masks have been collected throughout the Midwest, the majority being in Iowa. Donations are being accepted from anywhere in the United States.

“Face masks help farm workers feel more secure while also giving the community a chance to give back and volunteer or donate,” said Hoffman-Zinnel. “We hope people are grateful to these essential workers and recognize their contribution to our food chain.”

A chain that has kinks is still a chain, and the food chain is no different. Despite the stalled movement in several agricultural sectors, food is still being produced and farm workers are still on the job.

Dave Walton, a Wilton ISA member, soybean grower and cattle farmer says farm workers are essential during busy seasons. Even smaller farms will often hire help when the chores ramp up.

“I have a firefighter who comes and helps me on my farm on his days off,” said Walton. “It’s hard to imagine what would happen if he were to get sick.”

Walton says every employee on the farm is critical. They are following CDC guidelines on his operation and providing hand sanitizer to those helping. Measures, Walton says, that should be taken anyway.

“It’s vitally important to have a healthy workforce,” he said. “Livestock needs fed, cows need milked, chickens need cared for. Farm workers need protective measures like these masks.”

Iowa has over 72,000 farmers and farm laborers involved in the food supply chain. This number increases in the summer when farm work is more labor intensive.

“We have to brace for the additional farm workers who arrive in Iowa each May and June to assist on operations,” said Hoffman-Zinnel. “And we’ve been blown away by the number of people wanting to donate masks to this cause.”

Several Iowans donating masks have dropped off as many as 75 at once. Others are sewing masks at home to be donated.

To better prioritize health and sanitization, the organization asks individuals to call ahead to 1-800-372-6031 to coordinate mask drop off. Proteus, Inc. has three locations in Iowa; Des Moines, Fort Dodge and Iowa City. Masks can be dropped off at any location.

Those at home wishing to make masks can visit The Mask Pros online for resources.

Contact Katie James at kjames@iasoybeans.com.

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjames@iasoybeans.com. © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.