At Southern Anoka Community Assistance (SACA), a food shelf in Columbia Heights, people can now “shop” for food and household items, sort of as they would at a regular grocery store. It’s a recent development at SACA, which until now has bagged food for clients ahead of time, says manager Dave Rudolph.

For the most part, people took whatever they were given, regardless of their needs or preferences.

But last month, SACA joined a growing number of local food shelves that have switched to a “client choice” model, which gives people options, depending on what’s on hand. “We depend on donations and food banks, so our stock does change,” Rudolph said.

The reasons for doing things the new way are philosophical and practical. For starters, “client choice” is more respectful of people who arrive at the food shelf, Rudolph said. “You get someone who’s been in the workforce for however many years and provided for their families. All of a sudden, they can’t do it. They’re embarrassed and it’s hard on them,” he said.

This is one way to make things easier, he said.

It’s also a more efficient way to do business. Before, if people wound up with items they couldn’t use, those items would get donated back or go to waste.

Now, the food shelf can do a better job of stocking things that people need or want, which saves on costs. Considering that SACA is seeing as many as 55 new families each month, on top of its average of 450, every little bit helps, Rudolph said.

SACA is moving toward being able to let people shop any time during its business hours as opposed to making appointments. Those hours recently changed so people wouldn’t miss out on work wages, he said.

Also, with volunteer shoppers helping clients along the way, clients are “not just talking to one person who is doing intake. It’s not just a nameless, faceless type of thing,” he said.

The food shelf already is getting positive feedback from clients about the new format. “They say it’s more personal, that ‘my family will like such-and-such more,’ that kind of thing,” Rudolph said.

That’s not the only change SACA has made recently in an effort to meet needs.

It also has started using a service from Store to Door, a Roseville-based nonprofit that delivers groceries to homebound seniors in the metro area.

The food shelf will put together “orders” twice a week, and Store to Door will distribute the food, Rudolph said.

To raise more money to buy more food, SACA is getting creative with its clothing closet, as well.

Last week, SACA turned its clothing closet into a thrift store, with small household items in the mix. Everything is being sold at garage sale prices while vouchers are available for those who can’t afford it, Rudolph said.

It goes back to that dignity piece, where “people aren’t just getting a handout,” he said.

Joan Groenke, a longtime SACA volunteer who lives in Fridley, has recently been putting in eight-hour days to get the thrift store up and running.

For inspiration, she snapped photos of other nearby thrift stores to get a feel for the layout. She’s tried to incorporate some of the same practices, she said.

“I enjoy stuff like this, being part of the organization of it, being able to help people,” she said.

In it for the long haul

Ron Koon, president of the volunteer-driven Centennial Community Food Shelf in Circle Pines, first saw the “client choice” model in action at the White Bear Lake Food Shelf last year.

Centennial doesn’t have the same amount of space to work with, but it’s been able to partly implement the concept since it moved into a larger facility at Circle Pines City Hall in November.

At Centennial, clients start off with bags of pre-packed items, to which they add their choice of bread, fruits, vegetables and meats.

Even operating on a more limited level, the “client choice” concept” is working there. “It gets the client the food they really want, that they’re familiar with and know how to use,” Koon said.

Plus, it makes it easier for the food shelf, labor-wise. “If you look at the process, first you have to stock the shelves. So you have people doing that. Then, if you’re packing up items, you have to un-stock it, too,” he said.

Barb Downs, a director of field services at Second Harvest Heartland, a St. Paul-based hunger relief organization, said the “client choice” concept arose sometime in the mid-90s.

Food shelves “got to the point where they realized they were in it for the long haul,” she said.

They had the space to organize food that way and they wanted to show that they cared about their clients, she said.

Since then, that idea has gained momentum. “More and more food shelves are looking at ways to create the grocery store experience,” she said.

Likewise, local food shelves are trying to offer more fresh produce, something that Second Harvest is aggressively pursuing, Downs said.

That’s part of a larger movement. Society as a whole is starting to address health issues, especially where diet is concerned. “We know we need more fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.

And, in keeping with that, food shelves are increasingly adding refrigeration equipment and finding better ways to display fruits and vegetables, she said.

Despite job growth in the state, and the fact that the unemployment rate is lower here than elsewhere, many households still are earning less than they did in the past.

As a result, food shelves continue to see double-digit growth in terms of the number of people coming in. “They’re struggling to meet the needs,” she said.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.