Bloomington food shelf finds new purpose for excess produce

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2014 - 8:34 AM

A Bloomington food shelf finds inspiration from surplus donations.

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Kurt Hagen, left, and Benjamin Theisen Escobar poured batter for banana bread as other members of the Bloomington Rotary Club helped at the VEAP kitchen.

Photo: RICHARD SENNOTT • richard.sennott@startribune.com,

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What do you do with 50 overripe bananas?

Make 30 loaves of banana bread, of course.

That would be practical — well, sort of — if you’re at home cooking (though why you would have 50 bananas would be a reasonable question to ask).

That would also make sense if you’re running a restaurant and don’t want to let anything go to waste (restaurants regularly repurpose food in different forms).

But what happens to the produce that lands on the doorstep of a food shelf, when near the end of its nutritional life? The potatoes, bananas, squash and much more, measured by bulk in the thousands of pounds?

Traditionally, we would look to the compost heap or the landfill, where most aging fruits and vegetables end up. In fact, almost a third of our food is discarded, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Time for a change, say those who run the largest food shelf in the state, housed in the new VEAP (Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People) building in Bloomington, which offers social services to residents of Bloomington, Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis.

In March alone, the food shelf received 95,000 pounds of produce. Some days, it receives 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. “When we order a pallet of food, we don’t know what’s coming,” said Paul Jacobson, coordinator of the food shelf.

Just down the hallway from the distribution area, with its rows of canned foods, freezerful of blueberries and bins overflowing with potatoes and parsnips, there’s a new commercial kitchen that may change the way those organizations look at produce.

Bananas too ripe for clients to bring them home? Mash them up and bake really tasty banana bread to hand out to those same folks. That’s what they are doing at VEAP.

This concept proves so practical — and groundbreaking — that it’s almost surprising no one has done this before (almost, I note, because the need for a commercial kitchen would be an issue for many). “In Minnesota, this is very cutting-edge,” said Joan Bulfer of the Bloomington Division of Public Health.

Wasting food is, of course, wasteful. Let us consider the energy required to grow the food, the water it needs, the transportation costs, the disposal fees. Oh, my. Waste not.

So bring on the repurposing. Earlier this week, members of the Bloomington Rotary Club had a lesson in making banana bread from Barb Bacon-Gunderson, a retired volunteer formerly with Pillsbury.

The consensus, once the bread was sampled: It was good. No, better than good. “It’s amazing,” said Benjamin Theisen Escobar, who was clearly having a good time with his fellow volunteers. The recipe, modified by Jeanie Kozar, a retired Betty Crocker Kitchen employee at General Mills, and Gunderson, makes use of whole-wheat flour, more bananas, less sugar and fat to create a healthier version of the family favorite. The two women also worked on the physical design that transformed this cooking space from a conference room into a multipurpose area with commercial kitchen on one end and a comfortable space for cooking classes on the other.

By the end of the baking day, volunteers had produced 120 loaves, though the preparations had began much earlier. First came the banana squishing day, when the bananas are peeled and, well, squished for proper texture, then frozen for the future (do the math: for 120 loaves, that’s 200 bananas). Next, the dry and liquid ingredients are measured and, again, frozen. Mixing and baking — and tasting — complete the effort.

The VEAP repurposing plan began with banana bread, in part because its success is measurable (almost 800 loaves made to date with 1,600 pounds of bananas), but also because it was the easiest to manage. More repurposing is in the planning stage. Too many potatoes? Perhaps a mashed version has a future. Too much yogurt? Smoothies have potential (more bananas — the supply is almost endless — with strawberries and blueberries, another fruit in large quantity). Ratatouille, soups or stews with all those vegetables. Maybe jam. “The sky’s the limit to where they can go,” said Kozar.

There’s a practical side to the re-use.

“First of all, we are able to use food that we previously had to dispose of,” said Patty Schulz, advancement director at the organization. “Not only is VEAP averse to throwing away food, but the disposal of bananas and other fresh produce came at a significant cost to VEAP. With the repurposing program, we are better stewards of the food we receive and donor dollars.”

Then comes the lesson.

“Now that the banana bread is available to our clients in the food pantry, not only are they getting a fresh and nutritious product, but they also see that produce which is past its optimal ripeness can be used in other ways,” said Schulz.

Which brings us to the second part of this innovation.

In order to introduce new foods to clients of the food shelves and to suggest ways to prepare the food, the commercial kitchen prepares samples to be handed out in the distribution area. If you’ve never tasted eggplant, you may be disinclined to pick it up at the food shelf to feed your family. Same with squash. The sampling effort shows clients how to use some items that may be unfamiliar, and not so incidentally, moves along the produce and other food that is available.

Then there are the cooking classes, offered in the same room as the commercial kitchen, with the help of the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

“We make simple recipes that use whatever the food shelf has a large amount of,” said Maria Teresa Thoreson, an extension educator. “Many clients want to know how to make better choices. If given basic information, they start making healthier choices.”

We could start with banana bread.

Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste

 

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