Chief Executive Lori Kratchmer of the Food Group points to Sal Daggett as evidence of how Minnesota’s biggest supplier of free to low-cost food to nearly 250 hunger-relief agencies and programs evolves as an innovative supplier of nutritious food that makes the connections between nutrition, environment and health.

Daggett, a field biologist who grew up on a small Wisconsin farm, serves Food Group as a member of GreenCorps, part of the AmeriCorps community service program, through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Daggett, who helped harvest 15,000-plus pounds of produce last fall, has worked with volunteers on community gardens, developed Food Group’s own 1.5 acre “farm” at its New Hope headquarters and distribution center, captured excess produce from local farms and orchards, and expanded the number of partnerships with local growers.

“The 15,068 pounds that I [helped] harvest are a fraction of the total amount of local produce made available to hunger relief agencies,” she said, ticking off the environmental and health benefits of growing and sourcing locally. “Tens of thousands of pounds are obtained through other programs such as produce rescue at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, the Fruits of the City backyard fruit-tree gleaning program, and ‘giving gardens’ maintained by community groups. In 2016, the produce programs made available 138,151 pounds of fresh, healthy local fruits and vegetables to food-insecure households.”

Food Group (formerly Emergency Foodshelf Network) was founded in 1976 as a supplier to a dozen Hennepin County food shelves.

It has grown into a $10 million revenue wholesaler and distributor of food, nutrition education and health programs for tens of thousands of indigent elderly, working-poor adults and children. Most of the funds come from individuals, businesses, foundations and earned revenue.

Volunteer hours virtually match the time put in by 22 staff members.

Kratchmer, who joined Food Group six years ago after working as a merchandiser for Target and a total of 22 years in business, makes the connection between improved diets, performance, better health and lower medical costs. A better diet and exercise means healthier people, better-performing students, a stronger workforce and a more productive economy.

“Food Group was a leader in increasing access to healthier foods, even before it was trendy,” Kratchmer said. “Everyone, no matter the circumstances, deserves good healthy food.

“We want to help people thrive. There is a social justice component in our thinking. When I am struggling, do I not buy any broccoli or other produce and just six boxes of macaroni and cheese to stretch the budget? They also need good food.

“There is also a connection between people who are hungry and chronic disease. Hungry adults are 2.5 times more likely to be obese and twice as likely to get diabetes thanks to food insecurity. We don’t accept pop, chips and junk food. We’re not the food police. We just don’t want to put more junk in the system. That’s what people in ‘food deserts,’ or who are struggling to buy food … get the most.”

Food Group’s forte long has been low-cost bulk buys of food staples and hygiene items for resale at discounted prices to partner agencies, including fresh produce and frozen meats.

Fast-growing programs include several that grow or obtain fresh produce. One is the Fare For All initiative that procures fruits, vegetables and frozen meat in bulk. It is sold inexpensively at 37 sites across the Twin Cities, including Grace Church in Eden Prairie.

And the Harvest for the Hungry program purchases produce from near-Twin Cities farmers that is donated to its network of food shelves, on-site meal programs and hunger-relief agencies.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.