As we reach the first anniversary of COVID lockdowns, it’s worth looking back at the vital response of our food shelves at Brian Coyle Center and Waite House—and the huge efforts they’ve undertaken to show up for the communities that have been hit the hardest in our city.
It’s hard to fathom the scale of their effort. When the first wave of stay-at-home orders began, our food shelves were serving more than three times their usual volume. We were serving more households, and more frequently, than ever before. We kept up that pace all year—and by the end of December, we had distributed nearly one million pounds of food to our neighbors.
“What we have to understand is the operational context of that volume,” says Ethan Neal, Director of Food Systems at Pillsbury United Communities. With changes to the food shelf’s operational model to facilitate social distancing, staff took on a more active role in packaging and distributing food to clients. “That’s a lot of pounds of food on the backs of our people,” Ethan says.
This was a truly unprecedented effort for Pillsbury United Communities. Here’s more about how we stepped up to the challenge—and how you can help us continue this work in 2021 and beyond.
A creative approach in times of crisis
Social distancing guidelines required our team to physically reimagine our food shelves—finding new spaces, and creatively repurposing others. At Waite House, the food shelf team expanded to utilize space in an unused gymnasium.
“We started seeing such an influx in the number of people we were serving,” Ethan says, “That we needed to stretch our legs and utilize one of the largest properties in Minneapolis Parks & Rec.”
And with the lockdowns also affecting our neighbors’ access to essential hygiene items, our food shelves significantly expanded their offerings of diapers, feminine hygiene products, and other household necessities. At Brian Coyle Center, we partnered with our neighbors across the street at Mixed Blood Theatre to organize essential supply drives as a supplement to our food assistance.
“We became much more than just a food shelf,” Ethan says, “and I think that evolution was important in our response.”
Justice and equity in food access
And while COVID-19 forced our team to think creatively and reimagine their work, it also underscored the importance of several long-standing commitments for our agency’s food programs.
“When you think of a food shelf, you think of a model that’s based on canned food drives,” Ethan says. “At Pillsbury United, we’ve pledged a lot of our dollars to source healthy, culturally specific foods to serve our communities.” That means more access to fresh produce, as well as culturally relevant staples that reflect the tastes of our Native, Latin American, and East African neighbors.
“[As an agency] we talk about food justice and equity,” says Jovita Morales, food shelf coordinator at Waite House. “And if we don’t reflect our diversity in our food shelves, that’s not equity.”
“And you don’t see that everywhere,” adds Luz Francisco, building and volunteer coordinator at Waite House. “People in the community can come to us and know that we have foods they’ll want to eat.”
This approach was central to our work pre-COVID, and only became more urgent in response to the pandemic. To that end, we redoubled our commitment to urban agriculture across our entire food system and installed a walk-in cooler at the Waite House food shelf to house more fresh produce. And for those culturally specific preferences that our food bank partners couldn’t meet, we established new relationships with local, minority-owned grocery stores to help fill the gap.
How you can help
There is so much more to be said about the vital response of our food shelves and our many other staff providing essential, frontline services.
Today, you can help support this work with a financial contribution. During the month of March, our partners at Minnesota FoodShare are offering a partial match for all donations to Pillsbury United food shelves. If you’re able, please give today.
Food assistance is available via the food shelves at Waite House and Brian Coyle Center, as well as via our community meal programs at Waite House and Oak Park Center.