For the first time, Greater Twin Cities United Way is teaming up with three nonprofits to host an at-home volunteer event to boost the amount of culturally specific food at local food shelves.

United Way is working with CAPI, Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES) and Northpoint Health and Wellness to collect 2,500 food packs by April 10. As Minnesota grows increasingly diverse, nonprofits have doubled down on providing more culturally specific foods.

"Food is a big part of a culture," said Ekta Prakash, CEO of CAPI, a Brooklyn Center-based food shelf serving mostly low-income immigrants and refugees. "We really want to raise that awareness in the community."

Most food donated to local food shelves are items associated with white Minnesotans, despite food shelves disproportionately serving immigrants and refugees. When CAPI holds a food drive, donors often give staples like pasta, canned goods and peanut butter, Prakash said.

"That's a big challenge for our food shelf ... to bring more culturally specific food," she added. "It has become more and more important."

The food packs aim to increase cultural items — from Maseca corn flour and diced tomatoes for tacos to bamboo shoots and coconut milk for traditional Hmong meals.

Food shelves across the Twin Cities have also seen a surge in the number of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. CAPI served more than 9,000 people in 2020 — more than four times the usual 2,000 people a year. Many visitors are seeking help for the first time, Prakash said, as families weather COVID-related layoffs or furloughs.

"It's not going to go away," she said of the economic impact. "People need jobs."

Volunteers can help by buying specific items at a grocery store and dropping them off at a pickup location. Go to and click on the volunteer tab for details.

United Way, like nonprofits across the state, has reworked volunteering during the pandemic to activities done at home or virtually. Last summer, the organization moved its largest volunteer event of the year — filling thousands of backpacks with school supplies for students in need — to an at-home event.

This month, United Way also wrapped up its fifth and final round of grants from a COVID-19 fund. More than $680,000 was distributed for nonprofit operations and employee well-being. Since last March, United Way has doled out about $3 million in COVID grants for issues such as housing, food insecurity and child care.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141