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Guest Column: Farm to food shelf is a lifeline for farmers and is a key to hunger relief

Guest Column by Allison O’Toole, Virginia Merritt and Jon Van Erkel

As what’s hopefully the worst of the pandemic is behind us, we must recognize the long road to recovery that’s ahead — especially for Minnesota farm families whose lives and livelihoods were enormously disrupted. The shock to the agricultural system was broad and varied, including bending the link in the chain between farmers and the hunger relief system.

Allison O’Toole

Within the last decade, farmers have become increasingly important players in the fight against local hunger. At the beginning of 2020, the optimistic outlook on hunger showed that the country had finally reached pre-Great Recession levels of food insecurity. But COVID-19 has undone a decade’s worth of hunger-fighting progress: Currently one in nine Minnesotans, including one in six children, is food insecure.

Second Harvest Heartland –—one of the largest food banks in the country — distributes more than 105 million meals to nearly 1,000 agency partner programs across 41 counties in central and southern Minnesota and 18 counties in western Wisconsin. Channel One Food Bank serves 14 counties in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, and provided more than 7.3 million meals last year alone. We cannot serve our partners, their clients and your communities without farmers as our hunger-fighting partners. That’s where Minnesota’s Farm to Food Shelf Program comes in.

Virginia Merritt

The state program enables food banks like ours to source millions of pounds of local produce, protein and dairy each year and distribute it to our community partners. Their clients — families, seniors, college students — are increasingly seeking out from their food shelves high sources of nutrition, like meat, cheese, yogurt, fresh fruits and veggies — and Farm to Food Shelf ensures food banks can source these products from local growers and producers. Since the program began in 2015, our partnership with farmers and elected officials has helped put more than 30 million pounds of produce and protein, and more than one million gallons of milk, on the tables of Minnesotans facing hunger.

This is why the current base funding of $1.7 million per year included in the Senate Agriculture omnibus bill must be sustained. It will maintain funding levels we have received over the last biennium, ensuring food banks don’t see a decrease in funding at a time when Minnesota families — farm and otherwise — are most in need.

Jon Van Erkle

We’re grateful for the support the program has received so far. Last month, Sen. Gene Dornink, chief author of the Farm to Food Shelf bill in the Senate, toured Second Harvest Heartland’s new hunger-relief facility in Brooklyn Park to learn more about our operations and how we work to address hunger in Minnesota. Amid growing food demand, we hurried to open the facility filled with bigger coolers to store nutrient-dense foods like protein and dairy and deployed our larger fleet of trucks to deliver it all across our service area. Food banks like Second Harvest Heartland and Channel One couldn’t do what we do without the support of legislators like Sen. Dornink.

No one should face this virus or its aftermath hungry. Farm to Food Shelf has been and continues to be a vital part of our efforts to ensure that Minnesota families can stock their fridges with healthy, locally grown food, while enabling food banks to support our state’s agriculture industry during unprecedented times. You can support this program by reaching out to your state legislators, including Sen. Dornink, to thank them for their support of Farm to Food Shelf and encourage them to continue to invest in Minnesota’s food banks and food shelves through the duration of the COVID crisis.

Finally, we will all need to give and receive help if we are going to build back stronger as a community. If you or someone you know is in need of support, please visit 2harvest.org or helpingfeedpeople.org to find resources near you.

Allison O’Toole is CEO of Second Harvest Heartland in Brooklyn Park; Virginia Merritt is executive director of Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester; and Jon Van Erkel is the co-owner of Van Erkel Farms Inc. in Hollandale.