Picture a food shelf: Canned vegetables, boxes of cereal, jars of peanut butter and packages of pasta, right?

Think again.

At the Eagan and Lakeville Resource Centers, about half of the food offered to those in need has been fresh or perishable -- produce, milk, eggs, even meat and fish -- and this year, the growing food shelf hopes 70 percent of the food it distributes to Dakota County residents will be fresh.

"You think of all the health disparities that are facing low-income families. So you think about how important that fresh food is for families who are in need of food support," said Lisa Horn, executive director of the Eagan and Lakeville Resource Centers. "It's vital to their health. It's vital to their production at work. It's vital to kids learning at school."

The fresh food ambition comes as the food shelf, known as the Pantry, continues to see increasing need.

In 2011, the two grocery-store-style locations gave 679,343 pounds of food to 9,944 families, an increase from 384,085 pounds to 5,567 families in 2010.

Some of those clients are people who used to be able to donate to charities like the Eagan and Lakeville Resource Center. Many are families whose incomes have dropped during the recession. Others are senior citizens who find it more difficult to make ends meet.

The Pantry in Eagan has expanded its hours to meet demand and the Lakeville location is adding 500 square feet of office space for meeting with clients.

To keep the fresh food coming in, Horn said, the nonprofit will build on its relationships with grocers and regional food bank Second Harvest Heartland. They will also be reaching out to farmers, community support agriculture groups and an ever-expanding network of community gardeners who volunteer to cultivate tons of produce for the food shelf each year through the Garden to Table program.

Those contributions from so-called Mission Gardens and plots for food-shelf clients last year totaled 20,000 pounds. This year, Horn said, she is hoping gardeners can grow 35,000 pounds locally.

Some of that will be coming from Chapel Hill Church in Eagan, where about 50 congregants joined the Garden to Table program with a 3,600-square-foot vegetable plot on the church lawn last year that yielded 1,800 pounds of organic produce.

Sense of connection

"Everybody knew right off the bat that the whole thing was set up to grow food and donate it to the food shelf," said the Rev. Paul McVety, senior pastor at the church.

He said the local connection raised awareness of the scope of the hunger problem -- something not often associated with more affluent suburbs -- and intensified people's commitment.

"That whole approach, that I can have my hands in the dirt and grow this and it's going to a specific family and it's going to be on their table, to put that together it really does move people," he said.

Lindsi Gish, a spokeswoman for Second Harvest Heartland, said that connection is part of the reason fresh foods are the fastest-growing segment of donations to the food bank, thanks to a Food Rescue program that retrieves still-edible but imperfect or older perishable foods from local stores.

Such collections accounted for 25 percent of Second Harvest Heartland's distribution to local food shelves last year.

"It just feels good to them," she said. "When [stores] are taking the oranges off the rack, they're not going to be thrown away."

Just having fresh food available, however, isn't enough.

Some food shelves don't have enough refrigerator and freezer space. Sometimes there aren't enough volunteers to sort and rotate supplies of perishable foods. And food shelf hours don't always mesh with the lifespan of perishable foods.

Gish called the Eagan and Lakeville Resource Center goal of 75 percent fresh foods "ambitious but admirable."

The expansion at the Lakeville location allowed for more cold storage, and there are hundreds of volunteers helping out at both locations.

And Horn said they've found a way to make sure donated food doesn't spoil on the shelf: Fresh Food Fridays. That's when already-registered clients know they can come retrieve unclaimed produce and perishables that might otherwise spoil.

Fresh food "seems like a stretch, and maybe it is for some organizations, but for us, it's something we've been moving toward all along," Horn said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286