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Local Food Shelf "Planting It Forward" With Help From Local Businesses

Lon Berven, head of the Neighbors, Inc. program and representatives from CHS, Inc, Peterbilt, and Sanimax.
Lon Berven, head of the Neighbors, Inc. program and representatives from CHS, Inc, Peterbilt, and Sanimax.
Northern Dakota County can seem like a bucolic place, but in some corners, life is getting desperate. Now, one food shelf is teaming up with local companies to attack the problem head-on.

South St. Paul-based Neighbors, Inc., one of the primary human service providers for the Inver Grove Heights area, has seen food shelf usage soar since the start of the Great Recession. Just in the last year, said Neighbors' head of development, Rick Birmingham, the organization served around 65 percent more clients last year than the year before. Last year, nearly 13,000 people visited the Neighbors food shelf.

That fact is starkly apparent in the food shelf's storeroom. A May campaign organized by postal workers, called "Stamp Out Hunger," had filled a corridor with tens of thousands of meals' worth of canned food. When Patch visited a few days ago, barely a quarter of the donated food remained.

This week, Neighbors Inc. announced a new partnership with three local companies—farmers co-op CHS, Inc., truck company Peterbilt, and agricultural recyclers Sanimax—to collect extra produce from the gardens of the 1,100 people who work for the three for the Neighbors, Inc. food shelf. 

When Birmingham and program manager Lon Berven look into the future, they don't see the program as anything like a silver bullet for hunger in Inver Grove Heights or its surrounding communities. Every little bit helps, though, particularly when it comes to clients' quality of life.

"A lot of the people we serve are Latino immigrant families," Birmingham said. "When we do get fresh vegetables donated, its better from a health point of view, and it lets people take the vegetables home and make whatever they want, including traditional dishes they might miss."

The idea isn't necessarily a new one. Birmingham says "Plant it Forward" was inspired by a similar effort run by the City of Minneapolis, where his wife works, to harness its employees' extra garden produce. In previous years, Neighbors has also partnered with 30 area churches to harness the extras from parishioners' home gardens. 

"We got a lot of zucchini and tomatoes," Birmingham said. "You can't believe how  fast they disappeared—we would put out racks and racks of zucchini, and I'd come back an hour later and they're gone."

These days, more is better when it comes to food shelf donations. When a client first shows up at the food shelf, Birmingham said, Neighbors helps them sign up for food stamps or a similar assistance program if they qualify. New clients typically need help bridging the gap until they begin receiving benefits, though.

Once a client is on food stamps, Birmingham said, they often need help feeding their families for a number of reasons. Food stamp benefits are meager—just $29 per week, according to the Food and Drug Administration—and most recipients pay for food using a combination of food stamps and their wages. Because many  of Neighbors' clients are only able to find work at jobs paying less than $10 per hour, Birmingham said, when a family member has a health crisis or when a major bill like a significant car repair comes due, Neighbors' food shelf has to take up the slack.

"We still don't have precise handle on where these increasing numbers of clients are coming from," Birmingham said. "People are giving more, it's true, but not at the rate our clients are increasing."

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