A New Hope-based nonprofit with a 41-year track record in hunger relief is teaming up with an educational farm in Marine on St. Croix to put fresh produce in the hands of hungry Minnesotans.

The minds behind the new business model say it bridges two crucial links in the local food chain: growing and distributing.

The Food Group, a full-service food bank, will act as a distributor for produce from the Minnesota Food Association, a sustainable agriculture organization that provides training to immigrant and minority farmers.

“We’re really excited to bring the front end of the local food system together with the back end,” said Lori Kratchmer, the Food Group’s executive director. “It’s an innovative approach.”

It’s been just over two months since the Food Group — formerly Emergency Foodshelf Network — officially merged with the Minnesota Food Association and assumed administrative responsibility for Big River Farms, the association’s certified organic farm.

The Minnesota Food Association and its farm will now be a program under the Food Group, numbering among the food bank’s more than 200 other partners. These partners include 150 food shelves, a low-cost grocery sales program and mobile food shelf sites, Kratchmer said.

The formal merger comes after years of working with Big River Farms and sourcing its surplus produce. The decision to join forces is partly financial, with the much-larger Food Group assuming the Minnesota Food Association’s administrative responsibilities.

“It’s sort of hard to make a go of it when you’re a small nonprofit and do all the administrative functions well and really concentrate on your programming,” Kratchmer said. “We are happy to do that.”

In recent years, the food association had been operating on a $500,000 to $600,000 budget, while the Food Group’s operating budget is closer to $6.5 million, Kratchmer said.

The association’s 5-person staff has been absorbed into the food bank’s 33-person team.

The Food Group’s bigger budget, established donor base and administrative help will allow the Minnesota Food Association’s staff to focus on its educational work rather than grapple with fundraising for overhead costs, said former board chairman Daniel Tilsen, who will now serve on the food bank’s board.

There will be no loss of staff or programming at the farm, staff said. Over the years, the association has provided access to land, equipment and resources needed for starting a farm. Farmers sell their produce through farmers markets, wholesale opportunities and a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, where preseason supporters get a share of the harvest.

“Our whole program is really about helping farmers establish independence critical to forming businesses,” said Laura Hedeen, the association’s programs manager.

That will include supplying veggies to the food bank but won’t be limited to it, Hedeen said.

“There’s hopefully going to be some creative ways to do both of those things at the same time,” she said.

The Food Group is seeking an associate director to run the farm and its associated programs. The nonprofit is also looking into leasing additional acres in Marine on St. Croix to grow more produce, Kratchmer said.

The bottom line, Kratchmer said, will be more healthy produce for those who need it most.

“We have a lot of the same and similar values,” she said. “When were approached by them for a possible partnership, it made great sense.”