Fresh produce and meats used to be rare at local food shelves typically stocked with dry pasta and canned goods. Now those more nutritious ingredients are the norm.

That shift is a big part of what prompted Second Harvest Heartland, Minnesota's largest food bank, to move into a new warehouse with space to store and distribute millions more pounds of fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods.

Much of it is surplus from growers, manufacturers and grocers destined for the dump. Second Harvest is a national leader in what's called food rescue, and the huge new facility will allow the nonprofit to do even more of it.

"It means more healthy food for more people," said Tara Sullivan, a manager with Second Harvest.

The new warehouse and future headquarters in Brooklyn Park is nearly four times larger than the nonprofit's former home in Maplewood. The 233,000-square-foot facility opened for volunteer events in May and will be fully operational by spring 2020. That's when work will be finished on a multimillion-dollar build out that includes refrigeration, clean rooms to safely divide foods into smaller batches and an industrial kitchen for light food prep.

Increasing the amount and quality of the food bank's offerings means a better selection for Second Harvest's 1,000-plus partner food shelves and nonprofit programs across Minnesota.

The boost comes at a time when food pantries are reporting increased demand despite a growing economy. Minnesotans visited food shelves a record 3.4 million times in 2017, according to the Department of Human Services.

"The Brooklyn Park facility will help the overall hunger relief system," said Marsha Shotley, Second Harvest's chief philanthropy officer. "We all believe everyone should have healthy food."

A place to store more

Second Harvest, one of the largest food banks in the country, is expected to distribute 100 million pounds of food by the end of its fiscal year this month. More than half of that is fresh produce and meat.

The new facility will have much more cooler space. That's key to storing produce and meat captured by food rescue programs, when staffers search the nation's food supply chain to identify surpluses, such as truckloads of oranges and fields of unharvested potatoes, and persuade businesses to donate them.

"We will now be able to accept many more truckloads of produce because we know we will have a place to store it," Sullivan said.

Second Harvest purchased the Brooklyn Park building near Interstate 94 and Hwy. 100 last year, and is in the process of renovating it. The cost of buying the building, retooling it and creating programming for it is $52 million, and so far the nonprofit has raised about three-quarters of that.

"We are proud of it. We are ecstatic," said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde. "We want everyone who volunteers to know their new site is in Brooklyn Park."

Legislators gave the nonprofit $18 million in state bonding money this year. Private donors and foundations so far have contributed an additional $16 million.

"We were so grateful to get the bonding," Shotley said. "We are going to turn that bare-bones facility into a fully functional distribution facility."

'A community investment'

They also need more volunteers. The nonprofit currently counts on 28,000 volunteers each year, who often put in hours at a Golden Valley facility that's now closed. Second Harvest officials say they need more help and expect the new space to accommodate them.

On Friday, Nicole Collins-Kwong volunteered with her Wells Fargo co-workers at the Brooklyn Park warehouse. The team was dividing huge sacks of potatoes into 5-pound bags, which surprised Collins-Kwong; she said she expected to be shuffling canned food.

"I didn't expect to pack potatoes," she said. "I am really excited to see they are distributing more fresh food."

Collins-Kwong, of St. Paul, said her co-workers chose to volunteer at Second Harvest because it's close to home. "It helps families here who are in need," she said.

Second Harvest is also partnering with Brooklyn Park community food shelf Community Emergency Assistance Programs (CEAP) to open a market in the new building, reflecting an evolution in food shelves that allows people in need to choose foods in a grocery store setting.

CEAP President Clare Brumback said she's thrilled that Second Harvest will be able to rescue more food and open a CEAP market.

"The more fresh food we can capture, the more we can have available for folks. This is a great community investment," Brumback said.

Second Harvest plans to sell its Maplewood warehouse but will lease warehouse space for distribution and volunteer events in the east metro.

"We can't leave this side of town," Shotley said. "We have lot of volunteers that work with us."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804