Minnesota's Second Harvest Heartland, one of the largest food banks in the country, is launching a "moonshot goal" to cut the state's growing hunger problem in half by 2030.

The Twin Cities nonprofit's new "Make Hunger History" plan, announced Monday, includes pushing for more anti-poverty programs at the State Capitol as well as boosting outreach to connect low-income residents to more social services.

"We knew and know we need to be bolder," Second Harvest CEO Allison O'Toole said. "We have to do something different."

The Brooklyn Park nonprofit's new plan comes at a time when hunger is growing in Minnesota, with food shelves documenting a record 7.5 million visits in 2023. Second Harvest's new plan — which will cost the organization an estimated $150 million over the next six years — aims to reduce those food shelf visits in half, returning the state closer to 2019 levels.

"We've all seen how people can step up when we're in a crisis. We're in a crisis," O'Toole said. "This is one of the biggest issues facing our state right now and we need everyone at the table."

Food shelf visits dipped slightly in 2021 as Minnesotans' budgets were bolstered by special pandemic-related financial aid — from federal stimulus checks to the expanded child tax credit and extra food stamp benefits. When that extra financial aid evaporated, lines at food shelves returned.

That's why Second Harvest will push for new state funding to support low-income Minnesotans and increase outreach in an effort to help prevent hunger in the first place, O'Toole said.

"When we were all at the table during the pandemic, I think we kept the worst of hunger at bay," she said. "When everyone kind of went back to business as usual, it started to skyrocket again ... What we've learned during the pandemic is that we have to think differently, and when we do, it works."

The organization's plan, which aims to end food insecurity in Minnesota, has drawn some skeptics in the nonprofit sector.

"They've tried things like that in the past and they haven't been as successful as they hoped," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, adding that they have "lofty goals," though they're headed in the right direction.

'Make Hunger History'

Second Harvest Heartland is one of seven food banks in Minnesota that buy and collect surplus food from farmers and grocery stores to distribute to food shelves.

The organization, the result of a 2001 merger of St. Paul and Minneapolis food banks, moved in March 2020 to its 233,000-square-foot north metro headquarters. It's nearly four times larger than its old space — a fortunate move as the pandemic hit and put nonprofits on the frontlines of responding to a surge in hunger when schools and businesses closed.

Since O'Toole — a former prosecutor who worked for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar before heading up MNsure — joined in 2019, Second Harvest has grown by about 80 positions. It is one of the largest social services nonprofits in Minnesota, with about 250 employees and a nearly $230 million annual budget.

O'Toole has also beefed up the one-person public affairs team to five employees to push for funding at the Legislature as part of a new coalition of nonprofits.

"Our strongest lever is policy change," O'Toole said. "We need the state to come to the table in a different way."

The new coalition may also support broader policies that could break the cycle of poverty, such as increasing affordable housing and child care.

"To get to a point where we're actually cutting hunger in half and then hopefully ending it all together, it cannot be done through emergency food distribution alone," said Zach Rodvold, its director of public affairs. "There has to be policies that make that a reality."

Until poverty reduction programs can make a difference, other parts of the initiative include adding more food pick-up spots in the community, including at libraries and fire stations, expanding more mobile food distributions and broadening programs like Kitchen Coalition, which provides to-go meals to homeless encampments and community organizations.

O'Toole said food shelf visits may increase initially because of Second Harvest's proposed influx of food in the system, but over time, she hopes policy work and connecting people to services will reduce the need for food assistance.

In fact, Second Harvest has expanded a "care center" team to 35 people, including multilingual staffers, to help residents navigate the complex application for food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and connect with other services. More Minnesotans received food stamps in 2023 than any year since 2016, with an average of 447,000 residents a month enrolled in SNAP.

Second Harvest has long been contracted by the state for SNAP outreach, and United Way operates a 211 helpline to connect residents with food shelves or SNAP, as does a Hunger Solutions Minnesota helpline. But more resources and expertise are needed, O'Toole said.

Second Harvest has also added a team of six data analysts to map "hunger hot spots" in Minnesota, comparing food insecurity rates and other data to find gaps in food access, such as in the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul.

"We can service each of these communities in a much more holistic way," said Angelica Klebsch, the director of community partnerships and investment. "It's upsetting to see how high and how deep food insecurity looks. In the land of 10,000 nonprofits, this is what we're looking at."

A national model

Second Harvest is also vowing to listen more to the community and partner with organizations, O'Toole said. For instance, the nonprofit convened several advisory groups in the last few months, bringing together community leaders and residents from across the state.

"We have learned the best results come from community-driven efforts," O'Toole said.

O'Toole said she's heard the critics who question if Second Harvest's plan is self-serving or a ploy for fundraising dollars, but counters that Second Harvest is changing to become more community-driven, data-driven and publicly accountable than ever before.

"I hope, as our critics learn more, they understand that this is a new day here," she said.

Hunger relief organizations across the country will be watching Second Harvest's new initiative, too, she added, and if it's successful, efforts could be replicated in other states.

"We will be the first in the country to take on a goal like this," O'Toole said. "Hopefully it's a movement."