It's the busy planting season for Eric Reller all year round inside a dark shipping container in Brooklyn Park.
The freight container holds a mini hydroponic farm where he plants seeds and rows of lettuce under LED lights. But the leafy greens aren't for sale.
Instead, the lettuce is sent to Twin Cities nonprofits that provide meals to people in need through a new pilot program from Second Harvest Heartland, Minnesota's largest food bank.
"It's the future of food and we want to see if a food bank can be a part of that," said Bob Branham, director of produce strategy at Second Harvest. "There's a need."
Second Harvest is the first food bank in the nation to do a program like this, Branham said, adding that other food banks across the country are watching to see its progress.
As one of the nation's largest food banks, Second Harvest specializes in "food rescue," taking millions of pounds in produce donated by farmers, manufacturers and grocers to repackage and distribute to food shelves. And part of the nonprofit's growing focus is on fresh produce, doubling the quantity in the last six years.
Since lettuce wasn't as feasible because it doesn't last long and grocers prefer to sell it, Second Harvest stepped up to grow its own, buying the container hydroponic farm last year for $100,000, paid for by a donor. While hydroponic farms aren't new, food banks aren't often in the business.
"What's innovative is a food bank, usually at the end of the supply chain, is putting itself at the front of the supply chain," said Branham, a former leader at General Mills. "We don't have access to leafy greens in food rescue."
The farm is part of Second Harvest's new warehouse in Brooklyn Park, which it moved into last year after closing a smaller Golden Valley site.
On Tuesday, officials will celebrate the groundbreaking for the renovation of the 233,000-square-foot facility, funded largely by $18 million in bonding money approved by the Legislature — the largest amount of public money Second Harvest has gotten. The organization is fundraising to pay the rest of the $52 million total price to buy the building and create programming.
The new renovated warehouse near Interstate 94 and County Road 81, which is expected to be done by 2020, will add more space for volunteers packaging meals and more than triple the space for coolers and freezers.
That will allow the nonprofit to provide more fresh produce and protein, boosting the number of meals it supplies from a record 89 million in 2018 to nearly 112 million by 2025. Food is distributed to food shelves and pantries in 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Second Harvest will share the space with the Brooklyn Park community food shelf, Community Emergency Assistance Programs, which will open a free food market there.
With the new space, Second Harvest is also starting a new initiative this year, seeking money to buy bulk quantities of chicken and beef from manufacturers that can be repackaged into smaller quantities for food shelves.
"It's exciting to know it's going to people who don't have the opportunity for that kind of food," Branham said.
The lettuce farm could also grow. Branham has mapped out where the full-scale farm could go in the warehouse, if the nonprofit chooses to fundraise for the larger operation. For now, Second Harvest's small hydroponic farm harvests 8,000 pounds of lettuce a year. To grow 250,000 pounds of leafy greens a year, enough to supply food shelves and clients, it would cost an estimated $2 million.
Farm-to-table for all
Inside the 480-square-foot shipping container, which is the equivalent to the growing space of nearly 2 acres over the year, seeds are planted in coconut fiber and then transported into towers.
Reller, the master grower, has help from two volunteers to grow 21 varieties of lettuce and herbs such as basil, cilantro and parsley — all without any dirt, sunlight or pesticides in the 8-foot-tall hanging towers.
"The plants look pretty much immaculate," Reller said, adding that they don't have to ward off pests or cope with bad weather.
About five weeks later, lettuce is harvested and sent to Loaves & Fishes, which provides 3,000 meals a day at 30 dining sites in the Twin Cities, and Waite House, a community center in south Minneapolis that dishes up free lunch for 100 to 140 people a day.
Loaves & Fishes uses the lettuce to supplement donated bags of lettuce from grocery stores, which isn't as fresh.
"By the time we get it, it is pretty far gone, so this lettuce is special because it's so fresh," said Cathy Maes, the executive director of Loaves & Fishes. "It's genius."
Pillsbury United Communities, which operates Waite House in south Minneapolis, also relies on Second Harvest's lettuce, part of a broader movement to expand locally grown fresh foods to people in need. Pillsbury United Communities also has its own hydroponic farm in a shipping container to grow lettuce and herbs for its North Side community meals.
"How do we make farm-to-table accessible for everyone?" said Ethan Neal, the food systems manager for Pillsbury United Communities. "People, even if they don't have money, should have the choice to eat healthy."