Food Shelf Coalition builds connections between food shelves
When clients stop in at the Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes, they choose the foods they will use at home. The food shelf now resembles a mini grocery store, with refrigerated glass display cases and wide aisles for shopping carts.
It's a radical departure from the way most food pantries operate where individuals and families in need pick up a box of pre-packed food at the counter. The Pequot Lakes food shelf adopted a client choice model last November, based on what they learned through the Food Shelf Coalition.
Before the coalition began about three years ago, the six public food shelves in Crow Wing County rarely, if ever, communicated with each other. Carolyn McQueen, SNAP-Ed educator through the University of Minnesota Extension Northeast Region Office in Brainerd, is a member of Crow Wing Energized's Healthy Choices Goal Group. McQueen brought up during a meeting that they should get the food shelves together to talk, share ideas and find out how other food shelves operate.
Soon after, representatives from the Salvation Army Food Shelf in Brainerd; Cuyuna Range Food Shelf in Crosby; Crosslake, Emily and Garrison area food shelves; and Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes began meeting monthly, along with McQueen, a representative from Second Harvest Food Bank in Grand Rapids and Crow Wing Energized.
McQueen introduced the concept of client choice through a three-hour training session for the coalition.
Giving people a choice in the food they take home from the food shelf eliminates food waste and food return, helps people with dietary restrictions make healthier food choices and, ultimately, saves food shelves money by only purchasing food that their clients use.
The Salvation Army Food Shelf in Brainerd was the first food pantry in Crow Wing County to change to a client choice model last year. Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes was the second.
The operational change required a complete renovation of the food shelf. Instead of picking up a 70-plus pound box of food, clients push a cart through the food shelf, assisted by a volunteer, who helps them pick items from different food categories off the shelves. The food shelf received a grant to buy new refrigerator cases, which helps them keep foods fresh.
"I didn't like it at first, I'm going to be honest with you," said Carey Rasinski, Lakes Area Food Shelf manager, of client choice. "But I really like it now. It works perfectly now."
Food shelf volunteers get to see what foods clients want - and don't want. Canned sliced potatoes are a popular canned vegetable choice, while cans of creamed corn remain on the shelves. This allows food shelf staff to purchase and restock accordingly. Otherwise, clients would bring back the foods they didn't use on their next visit.
Deanne Ebert, a longtime Lakes Area Food Shelf volunteer, said she enjoys the change. She no longer has to lift heavy food boxes - clients push the shopping carts directly to their cars and use their own reusable bags.
Christi Tenczar, another volunteer, agreed. She said she has gotten to know clients and their families. They get the opportunity to talk when they shop together.
"For some people, we might be the only people they talk to all week," Tenczar said of their senior clients.
Rick Paine, president of the Lakes Area Food Shelf board, said it's too early to determine how much money the food shelf has saved since the new model was implemented. But clients, staff and volunteers all appreciate the positive change. The food shelf averages about 30-35 families served each Tuesday and Thursday morning they are open.
"We're busy, so unfortunately the need is there," said Paine. "Fortunately, we are able to fill it."
Food resources in Crow Wing County
If you or your family needs supplementary or emergency food assistance, Crow Wing Energized offers a list of food resources available in Crow Wing County.
Visit www.crowwingenergized.org and click on "Healthy Choices" to find the Food Resources brochure that lists agencies and programs that offer help for children, seniors, individuals and families.