Volunteers fanned out across the Twin Cities with their shopping lists.
Bean thread noodles. Coconut milk. Sardines.
Cardamom. Paprika. Turmeric.
Pinto beans. White rice. Maseca corn flour.
Comfort foods for hard times. A gift of familiar flavors, from complete strangers.
The Greater Twin Cities United Way drew up seven shopping lists, based on the most-requested pantry staples at food shelves in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. More than 1,500 people have signed up to date to donate to the Flavors of Our Community food drive before it ends this weekend.
A donated box of spaghetti noodles and red sauce would be comfort food for some. Not necessarily for a family already adapting to a new city, new language, new job, new school and to the gray slush that passes for early spring in Minnesota.
"Food, being such an intimate home and family activity, should not have to be a form of assimilation," said the United Way's Kristina Salkowski.
Culturally specific donations mean families can enjoy familiar, flavorful meals. And they mean donors have the satisfaction of giving a gift that is both needed and wanted.
"That feels good, as a volunteer," Salkowski said. When giving a gift, "I want that to be meaningful. I want those things to be used."
Over the past few weeks, volunteers have filled and dropped off 4,600 kits packed with ingredients tailored to dishes from Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Enough for 34,000 meals.
The flood of donations comes just as inflation is sending the price of food skyrocketing for those who can least afford it. The Greater Twin Cities United Way has logged a 70% increase in calls for help with food insecurity, compared with this time last year, Salkowski said.
"Everybody notices the price increase when they go grocery shopping," said Stuart Iseminger, food programs manager for the NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, one of the recipients of the United Way donations. "But for our participants, it's particularly challenging because they spend most or all of their income on rent. Any little increase can really throw their budget off."
The same rising costs are cutting into the nonprofit's budget, he said, so the United Way donations are a welcome boost.
The federal and state pandemic aid programs that helped so many families over the past two years have been shutting down, one by one. And month by month, Iseminger said, NorthPoint has seen an increase in the number of people coming in for help.
Food donation drives are a way for a community pushed apart by the pandemic to come together — at local library and Bremer Bank donation drop-off sites — to share a meal.
If you're looking for an even bigger bang for your buck, food shelves can make a buck go a very long way by buying in bulk. Nonprofits, such as CAPI, CLUES and NorthPoint, offer culturally specific food staples, and they could all use donations and volunteers right now.
To volunteer for the final days of the Flavors of Our Community drive, visit gtcuw.org.