Ah, but they can.
By Suzy Frisch
What kind of food bank turns away food? One that’s dedicated to providing clients fresh fruit and vegetable, dairy products, whole grains, and meats. The Food Group, a Twin Cities nonprofit, believes so strongly in its mission to give customers nutritious food that it will say “no thanks” to a donated pallet of cookies or candy.
The Food Group supplies more than 200 hunger relief groups across Minnesota with free food, nutritional expertise, and access to bulk purchasing at wholesale prices. Started in 1976 as the Emergency Foodshelf Network, it’s constantly finding new ways to bring fresh, healthy food to the hungry.
Stocking culturally appropriate food for the state’s diverse populations while offering education about diet and health is part of the Food Group’s mission to get nutritious foods—not just belly fillers—to families’ tables. Any food helps hungry people, but receiving nutritious groceries truly makes a difference, says Karena Gacek (B.S. ’06), the organization’s nutrition outreach specialist.
Karena Gracek (left) with customers Megan Baird, Aryhn Baird, and B.J. Palashewski at Fare For All, a program that purchases bulk fruit, vegetables, and frozen meat to sell at a discount. Photo: Sara Rubinstein
“Clients feel the dignity of seeing familiar foods from their home countries and fresh produce being offered to them. They feel good about putting healthy meals on the table for their families,” Gacek adds. “Food is nourishment for the body, mind, and soul. If we’re able to provide that, we’re providing opportunity and choice for our clients in need.”
Gacek, a registered dietitian nutritionist—a rarity at most hunger relief organizations— is key to meeting the nonprofit’s objectives. One of her main tasks is to develop and maintain guidelines for buying the healthiest versions of groceries in bulk, from low-sodium canned vegetables to whole grains like couscous and quinoa, as well as items like chickpeas and Maseca corn flour.
She also creates educational tool kits for other hunger relief organizations to teach clients about chronic diseases, does cooking demonstrations, and develops healthy recipes with ingredients often found at food shelves. Gacek’s displays are full of information, including what foods are diabetes-friendly and visual aids comparing how much sugar people should eat and what they actually eat.
“By educating people you’re giving them the knowledge of what to look for in a food shelf,” she says. “If they know what to look for, they are empowered to make healthy choices.”
The Food Group takes a multipronged approach to meet constant demand for fresh produce. It collects unsold produce from farmers’ markets and trains volunteers to harvest unpicked fruit from trees. With partners like nonprofit Finnegan’s beer, the organization recently developed Harvest for the Hungry. The program buys fresh produce from farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin that would otherwise have gone to waste, providing growers with a market and bringing just-picked fruits and vegetables to food shelves.
These programs and more have helped the Food Group distribute 1 million pounds of produce to hunger organizations. It’s vital work because healthy foods are often the most expensive items in the grocery store.
Gacek loves watching customers shop at food shelves with nutritious foods. “Some say, ‘I have not been able to buy fresh produce for months,’” she says. “To see their smiles when they see this good, high-quality fresh produce and be able to take home bags of it—they are happy because they can feed their families the foods they want to feed them.”