The largest food drive in Minnesota takes place in March, as community groups, businesses and individuals raise funds and collect provisions that will restock 300 food shelves statewide.
You never know what you’ll find on the folding table just inside the door of the Salvation Army food shelf in north Minneapolis. Today three boxes of perishables await those with a hungry eye: bibb lettuce, kale, edamame (soybeans), loaves of bread and boxes of Triscuits.
It’s a typical day, which is to say, the fresh food and crackers present an unpredictable medley that could be served up for dinner tonight. Tomorrow will offer different options, though they will always be perishable — fresh fruits and vegetables or food too near its expiration date for supermarkets to keep on the shelf.
This is the “free food” shelf, as the Salvation Army calls it. These items aren’t included in the monthly allotments that clients receive. But those clients are welcome to drop by daily to see what’s on the free table, all leftovers from local grocery stores. And people do stop in regularly to sort through the mystery boxes.
“They love the fresh produce,” said Alana Carrington, who runs the food shelf, “and the pastries.”
Hunger is a daily issue at this nondescript building at Lyndale Avenue N. and W. Broadway. Of the eight Salvation Army food shelves throughout the metro area, the North Side’s Parkview site is among the three most-used.
Last year the Salvation Army’s food shelves together distributed 2.7 million pounds of food. “That’s a lot of lifting. I get tired just thinking about it,” said Emily Shopek, the site’s team leader for social services. Her North Side location fed more than 530 households monthly in 2013, which met the needs of more than 1,600 individuals in the neighborhood.
“We could serve even more if we had more space and volunteers,” said Shopek, who noted the scarcity of helpers at her spot. “But people are afraid of north Minneapolis.”
Inside the cramped space that houses the food shelf, it’s a study of efficiency and making do. Canned food is stacked everywhere, often piled high, in hallways, on shelves, all ready to be bagged up for those who are hungry: peanut butter jars by the dozens; bags of rice, pancake mix and sugar; pallets of canned goods — green beans and beef stew—and carefully stacked cans of spaghetti sauce, tuna and beef ravioli.
But the site needs more food. So do all food shelves in the state, which is why this month is designated as Minnesota FoodShare, a campaign by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches. For more than 30 years, the nonprofit has spearheaded a fundraising effort to collect food and monetary donations; this year about 300 food shelves statewide will reap the benefits.
Carrington, who orders the food for the North Side location, serves as an enthusiastic guide on this mini-market tour of her food shelf.
“It’s a passion for me,” she says. And you believe her.
“Nobody leaves here hungry. We’re the Salvation Army,” she said. “I love to feed people. It’s comfort for them with what they’ve been going through. We try to give a sense of hope.”
That comfort comes in the form of 15 pounds of food per person per month — three meals a day for three days. For a family of six, that would be 90 pounds of food.
Much of it is purchased by the Salvation Army; the rest comes from donations. As Carrington makes her grocery list, she considers what she would like to eat herself.
Well, she mostly follows her taste buds as a guide. “I don’t eat canned peas,” she said, shaking her head. “But others do, so I order those. People want peas. We have them canned, fresh and frozen.”
That’s one way the Salvation Army has evolved in its food orientation, whether it’s at the food shelves or in the prepared meals that it provides at other locations.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much we’ve tried to be health-conscious,” said Annette Bauer, media relations director for the Salvation Army. “It’s on our mind as we’re purchasing food. Not that we’re not taking food we’re offered, but we’re looking at salt content, etc., as we buy it.
“It used to be that we filled our clients up with any calories because it might be the only meal they got. Now we also want to introduce things that are healthier. We’re changing the way we’re trying to serve people,” she said. That includes offering recipes for low-cost meals on its website throughout March.
When you’re talking about food, you can’t escape the numbers: 10 percent of Minnesotans don’t know where their next meal will come from. A third of those are children. “The need is greater than ever, even though we keep hearing that the economy has improved and employment is going up,” said Suzanne Shatila, director of Minnesota FoodShare. “We still see individuals coming in who can’t make it month to month. The need is still there.”
While monetary donations are always welcome — and in many ways more efficient for food shelves — buying food for others resonates in a way that writing a check does not.
“We feel that purchasing food makes you feel more connected, and isn’t that what we ought to do, feel more connected?” said Bauer.
“And it’s a good lesson for kids.”
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste