Hunger is the most basic food issue. While not the flashiest, food shelves are on the front lines. Recently I visited the food shelf at Neighbors, Inc. located in S. St. Paul. Neighbors, Inc. is a relatively small organization with roots going back to 1972 when Swift and Armour closed their meat packing operations in S. St. Paul.

Neighbors, Inc. depends on volunteers, many of whom are seniors who live in the community (they joke that the organization also serves as a senior center).

It’s well known that, both nationally and locally, suburban hunger and poverty are hidden problems that are on the rise. This is particularly an issue in S. St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights and W. St. Paul.

While many Neighbors, Inc. food shelf users receive public benefits, it often isn’t enough to last the month. Some customers are not able to easily access grocery stores to use their public benefits and instead frequent convenience stores where the food offerings are generally more expensive and less healthy.

Volunteers stock dairy products

Volunteers stock dairy products

Providing healthy food at food shelves is always a challenge. Food shelves rely in large part on surplus donated by grocery stores. Some is healthy and some is not. Neighbors, Inc. employs various strategies to promote healthy eating:

For example, each month the Menu Makers program features recipes using a non-perishable food item plentiful in the food shelf, with the goal of offering healthy recipes using the featured food. The program has evolved. As the volunteer manager of the program, Sue Hanebuth says, “the [program launch] was a humble and awkward beginning.” Early featured foods included mac and cheese and yellow cake mix. Now the program more often features nutritious recipes, such as those using canned salmon (which received rave reviews) and dried lentils.

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Sue Hanebuth with fresh kale recipes

Fresh Ideas focuses on fresh produce, providing recipes and ideas for using healthy fruits and vegetables customers may not be familiar with. According to Scott Andrews, the food shelf manager, some types of produce are a tough sell, noting “a lot of people are intimidated by kale.”

There are also partnerships with local farmers markets, as well as three raised garden beds on site (built by Eagle Scouts). Local companies also donate fresh herbs and produce grown in their onsite gardens.

In addition to the goal of providing healthy food to low-income people, I was impressed by the staff and volunteers who clearly perform their various duties (they often wear many hats) with a caring and neighborly spirit and sense of service (and humor).

For those who want to delve into the issues on a broader scale, I recommend checking out this report detailing the  challenges and opportunities for food shelves in Dakota County as they strive to make best use of their limited resources to improve the health of their clients: http://tinyurl.com/gque66b