Getting Fresh at the Food Shelf

It wasn’t until Olivia Lara’s 16-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes that she began to think about what she was eating. 

The tacos, juicy burgers and other fast food that served as their normal diet have now been replaced with spinach, potatoes and, on some occasions, vegetables Lara admits to knowing nothing about. 

The result: weight loss, liveliness and a desire to eat right long into the future.

“People are telling me now that I act completely different, like I have all this energy all of a sudden, “ the St. Paul resident said.  

Lara was among a healthy crowd of residents who turned up at a recent local foods event at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul where food shelf officials, local farmers and others were trying to encourage similar transformations. 

Booths were set up to explain how to cook with unfamiliar vegetables and food samples were handed out as part of the event, which included representatives from Mississippi Market Food Co-Op, Trotters Café and Simply Good Eating, a University of Minnesota program that encourages healthy eating among the underprivileged. 

The event was a first for the food shelf and is part of a wave of new efforts undertaken by food shelf organizers to encourage healthy eating habits among those they serve. 

The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center is in the vanguard of this movement. There, farmer’s markets and individual farms are donating excess produce for the first time this summer, and apples gathered from residents’ trees by a volunteer-run "fruit gleaning" program are helping to stock the pantry. 

In the last six months, more than 2,000 pounds of produce have been delivered, said the community center’s food shelf development coordinator, Josh Grinolds. The donations come on top of the 58,000 pounds donated by Whole Foods, Trader Joes and the Mississippi Market Coop. 

“This is largely just produce that would go to waste otherwise, so it’s a win-win,” Grinolds said at the event, where community members were invited to visit tables staffed by farms, nutrition experts and other food groups.

Grinolds said many of the food shelf’s clients have taken an interest in cooking and eating healthy, and that he would like to expand the offerings by creating a community garden, hosting more cooking classes and teaching clients about canning and preservation. 

He’d also like to see food shelves take a more orchestrated approach when it comes to collecting produce. Right now, he said, it’s largely a grassroots effort in which relationships spring up informally. 

“This is all very new and to be honest, it’s pretty anarchic, “ he said. 

Several area farmers are interested in helping create a workable relationship, however. Margaret Marshall, the wholesale manager at Rushford Village-based Featherstone Farm, said she and her peers have worked over the last several years to expand their giving to area food shelves. 

CSA customers who can’t pick up their boxes are allowed to donate them, and food shelves closer to the farm are sometimes invited to help pick food directly from the fields. In the future, the farm may also ask customers if they would like to donate towards a direct food shelf donation program, Marshall said. 

“A lot of our customers really appreciate the chance to help others get access,” she said.

Farmers admit that the idea of donating their excess produce is a relatively new concept and that it takes time to adjust their thinking and operations. 

Daniel Moe, a Hutchinson-based farmer who runs a Twin Cities CSA program, is donating extra vegetables for the first time this year. Previously, it would have gone to waste or animal feed, he said.  “You have all this energy going to the customer,” he said. “This requires a total mind-shift.”

Thinking about it more carefully, though, Moe said it is only a continuation of his lifelong pursuit: “Feeding people. That’s what I was raised to do,” he said.

Anyone who would like to help donate local produce to area food shelves may consider contacting the Hallie Q. Brown Center or contacting Gardening Matters


Drew Kerr is new transplant to Minneapolis who comes to the Twin Cities by way of upstate New York. He's a Midwesterner at heart, having grown up and gone to school in Iowa. His interests are sustainable agriculture and building a stronger connection between farm and fork. Feel free to e-mail him thoughts, ideas and suggestions at and to explore his website,