Live United: Just what does the United Way of Freeborn County do?

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 2, 2022

Live United by Erin Haag

Many people don’t realize the wide programming footprint that United Way of Freeborn County has. Either people don’t realize what we do at all, or they believe that we exist soley to raise money for other area nonprofits. I’ve found that even among the board of directors of our partner programs, there’s not a true depth of understanding of what we do. I get that. I’ll admit, it took me quite a while to understand what we do. When I talked to the United Ways of Minnesota State Association director, the first words out of her mouth were, “Congratulations. You’ve just become the director of the most complicated nonprofit there is.” No pressure there at all.

Erin Haag

We’re advocates, each and every day. We advocate for our programs, our partner programs, for community members. The ways you can advocate for the general well being of our community are endless. Last Wednesday, we took it up another notch. We joined with Second Harvest Food Bank’s Public Affairs department to participate in a listening session for the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is an incredibly complex piece of legislation that encompasses a wide variety of programs. It dates back to 1933 as part of The New Deal in response to the economic plight of agriculture following World War I, the Dust Bowl and more. It’s renewed by Congress every five years, and that renewal is coming up in the next year or so. 

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So it’s time to begin the conversations. Just as we gathered those using the food shelves to develop the strategy behind the Welcome Pantry, we gathered again to participate in questions and answers about policy, and what we believe is important. Representatives from Owatonna, Rochester, Albert Lea, St Peter and Austin shared their professional and personal experience. We had food shelf managers, executive directors and community members sharing their thoughts. I’m proud to say that many of the sentiments echoed are at the foundation of the work we’re doing at the Welcome Pantry, ideas centered around choice, healthy, fresh foods and a recognition of the worth and dignity of every person. 

The Farm Bill accounts for programs such as The Federal Emergency Food Program (TFAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), SNAP benefits and more. There’s a complex supply chain for foods designated for food banks, which in turn is how we order food for our food pantries. Food pantries are often able to order foods without cost, only paying for transportation costs. That’s a huge benefit to food pantries, enabling them to tap into a wider infrastructure of agriculture supply chain and make their dollars stretch further. The CSFP Program is a monthly box of food for seniors. United Way partners with the Albert Lea Y to deliver these boxes to seniors that are homebound. Other seniors can pick up their boxes once a month at the Y. 

These programs aren’t perfect. That’s our job — to advocate to our legislators about the barriers that legislation can sometimes unintentionally put into place. Do we need to expand or loosen up regulations? Do we need to think about different types of delivery? 

I was especially proud of Heidi, our Welcome Pantry co-coordinator for her points about how the face of our clients have changed. They’re working families, struggling to make ends meet even with dual incomes. That means we need to think about the ways we provide support to families, and we need to advocate for those changes at the state and federal level. We’re still learning about this type of advocacy and what our role in it can be. We had to learn about the Farm Bill, and there’s still so much for us to learn. 

In other news, we had a successful week in laying out the schedule through December. We’ve scheduled the Welcome Pantry on the third Tuesday of each month from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and scheduled all of our Winter Gear Drive community distribution dates. Those you can find on our website at As always, we’ll be looking for volunteers for a wide variety of projects, from hosting a Winter Gear drop box, helping with distributions of both food and coats and just helping keep us organized. We’ve also participated in Back to School picnics at Albert Lea Area Schools and will be attending the upcoming Early Childhood Open House. 

It’s a busy season for sure. If you’d like to join us, please give us a call at 507-373-8670. We appreciate each and every one of you for your efforts to Give Where You Live. 

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.