When families need food, they're probably in need of other things, as well. So why not use the food shelf as a place to provide that extra help?

That's the insight behind an effort to turn Minnesota's 300-plus community food shelves into clearinghouses for an array of social services. The Foundation for Essential Needs (FFEN), a Minneapolis-based organization, recently launched a pilot program in Pelican Rapids, Minn., an Otter Tail County city of about 2,500 residents.

The foundation made a cash grant to help the food shelf buy a computer and upgraded refrigeration equipment. But its main focus was pulling together the organizations that assist Minnesotans in need and improving collaboration, using the food shelf as a hub.

"We are recognizing food shelves as community assets," said Susan Russell Freeman, FFEN's executive director. "We're taking resources that already exist and creating a sustained support service."

The groups that FFEN envisions working through food shelves include the social service agencies of Minnesota's 87 counties as well as the state's 24 community action programs, 11 tribal community action programs, 10 regional development organizations and six initiative foundations.

Doug Kohrs, FFEN president, said there is a clear link between food and other needs. Kohrs and Russell Freeman both learned from experience at Bloomington-based VEAP, the state's largest food shelf. Kohrs was a board member and Russell Freeman was the longtime executive director.

"We realized that the people we want to help would present at the food shelf first," Kohrs said. "As the people came in, instead of just giving them food, we tried to understand what they really needed. Do they need help with their car? Do they need help with their heating bill? Do they need help with their kids?

"And we thought, 'What if we took that concept, expanded it and took it to the whole state of Minnesota?' "

In Pelican Rapids, on the one day each week that the community food shelf is open, there's now a staff person on site from either Otter Tail County or from the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership. They offer clients help with items ranging from applications for heating aid to signing up for health insurance.

John Dinsmore, Otter Tail County administrator and director of community services, said it was helpful to have a fresh set of eyes looking at how social services programs are operated in the county.

"It had perfect logic to it," he said. "But it took someone like Susan [Russell Freeman] to pull people together and say, 'Is this possible?' "

Deb Sjostrom, the county's human services director, said she believes the pilot program — which began last month — will prove its worth.

"I would want to see how things go," she said. "But I would be surprised if, three to six months from now, we don't see that there is a value."

The foundation plans to focus its efforts in 2017 on seven north-central counties, including Kanabec, where discussions are underway to partner with the Lakes and Pines Community Action Council. Getting different service agencies to work together can sometimes be complicated, said Bob Benes, the council's executive director.

"What we're trying to do is break down some of those barriers, get the partners to work together," he said. "It really is common sense.

"By partnering with our local food shelves and FFEN, we're going to be getting a better picture of the full family, their access to resources, the choices they're making.

"We all have to eat," Benes said. "So food is a good place to start."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402