Bursting at the seams, the state's largest food shelf is moving to bigger digs.

With poverty rising in the suburbs and a growing list of people needing help, Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People's move also marks the start of a new partnership with Hennepin County.

"We are so booked now that clients have to wait five days to get in, because it's so busy and crowded," said VEAP Executive Director Susan Russell Freeman. "And we're supposed to be an emergency food shelf!"

In June, VEAP will move into a renovated Bloomington warehouse more than three times larger than the building it now occupies near Bloomington City Hall. As part of a county effort to bring services closer to people in need, the county will rent part of the building as a new social service hub.

Freeman said helping people without too much red tape remains a high priority, and VEAP's culture won't change.

"We've invited [the county] to our 'hood, so that's the way it's going to be," she said with a smile. "We're a private, small, grass-roots organization and they're a large, tax-supported entity. But in the end, it's the clients that will be served."

Target: working poor

Last year, VEAP served 18,000 residents of Bloomington, Edina, Richfield and part of south Minneapolis with its food shelf, senior services, temporary financial help and holiday toy and school supply drives. When VEAP was founded nearly 40 years ago, it had no home, just some shelf space donated by a Richfield store owner.

Today it has 17 employees and an annual budget of $1.6 million; in 2011 it provided about $6.8 million in donated services, materials, food and time, all based in a cramped 14,000-square-foot building.

On a recent Wednesday morning, almost every chair in the small lobby was occupied by people young and old. They were waiting to talk to someone about food assistance, help with transportation or help for basic financial needs.

The target audience is the working poor -- a family of four bringing in $44,000 or less a year. Freeman said it's no coincidence that the service area includes the Mall of America and the Interstate 494 strip, the state's largest hospitality area. She said many VEAP clients are single mothers who work as waitresses, maids and in other positions at hotels or restaurants, some holding two or three jobs at a time.

But VEAP clients also include seniors who can't drive or who need help preparing meals, people who are temporarily disabled and the long-term unemployed. Some people visit VEAP just once a year to pick up a holiday toy or school supplies.

New building is massive

With an ever-growing clientele, VEAP has struggled in its current home. The building lacks sufficient food storage space, so it relies on corporate donors like Freightmasters that store and move goods to keep the food shelf stocked.

Storage won't be a problem at VEAP's new quarters at 9600 Aldrich Av. S. The old Viking Food Service building has 47,000 square feet on one level, with large freezers and refrigerators and three acres of parking. VEAP bought the property, which was gutted and is being rehabbed, for $1.3 million. VEAP is planning a $5 million capital campaign next year to pay for the building and renovation.

"It's a really, really ugly building, but it's got what we wanted," Freeman said. "Parking, drive-in refrigeration rooms, docks for semis."

Hennepin County will occupy about a quarter of the building, with 70 to 100 county employees there daily. VEAP and the county will share a 7,000-square-foot lobby and needs-assessment area. That's half the space of VEAP's entire building now.

Crucial face time

Freeman is excited about the partnership with the county, which will put a representative of both groups at the front desk to greet people and figure out how best to help them. While VEAP has always done eligibility testing for its services, Freeman said this will be the first time it has been able to do a needs assessment for clients.

"They will sit down with a social worker and walk through things," she said. "Because when people need food, other things are going on."

The goal is to give clients long-term stability by addressing issues affecting them. To prevent clients from getting lost in what is sometimes a complicated process, VEAP will have "service assistants" who escort people through their visit.

"A social worker can be a faceless voice on the phone," Freeman said. "Now people won't have to go downtown. ... They will save money, and ultimately it should be more efficient for the county, too."

Small teaching kitchen

Malnutrition and poverty go hand in hand, and one small feature in the new building is designed to fight that. There will be a simple demonstration kitchen where small groups of clients, perhaps 10 to 15 at a time, can watch volunteers show how to prepare meals that are affordable yet nutritional.

Nutritionists from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, Bloomington Public Health and VEAP volunteers -- including former workers in the Betty Crocker kitchens at General Mills -- are assembling basic recipes for the kitchen.

"We're up against the [fast-food] dollar meal here," Freeman said. "We want people to see how they can buy enough to feed a family and have it be nutritional."

Child care will be available for single moms. Freeman said VEAP has noticed that seniors sometimes stop using their stoves for fear of fire or that they will forget that something is cooking. So the menus will include meals that can be prepared using slow cookers, microwave ovens or hot plates.

More volunteers

All of this takes money. VEAP relies on donations from individuals, Freeman said, most of them small donors. To make a $1.6 million budget this year, the group needs to raise $150,000 by the end of the year.

"It usually comes in," she said. "We have literally hundreds of supporters, but not a lot of rich ones. One of our challenges is to ask people to dig a little deeper, and to reach new people."

Even in its infancy in 1973, when food was stored in a hardware store, VEAP had about 100 volunteers, Freeman said. She said next year's big expansion doesn't change the fact that the group's core strength remains its deep community roots. An army of 1,500 volunteers keeps the food shelf and other services going, but she thinks VEAP can do even better.

"I think we can get to 2,000 volunteers," she said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan