Everybody runs out of milk or bread from time to time, and it’s a nuisance. But for Brian Felt, and too many others like him, running out of basic food items can put his physical and emotional health in jeopardy.
There are systems in place to help area low-income residents procure food, but some programs leave people like Felt of Mound needing more. WeCAN, a local nonprofit that provides emergency assistance for housing, family support and food programs, including Meals on Wheels (MOW), is working to fill the food gap. It was through MOW that it came to light that, for some clients, the meals didn’t offer enough food to support their nutritional needs throughout the month.
So they launched Mobile Market in August, to fill that grocery gap for low-income residents who can’t get to a traditional food shelf due to transportation or physical issues. Clients, who must be at least 200 percent below the federal poverty guidelines, fill out a food request form, and adults are allotted 25 to 30 pounds of food every other week.
The program, funded by private monetary or product donations, received a kickstart from the Olson Family Foundation’s $200,000 grant. “[The Olsons] are really dedicated to providing support for those in the community, especially as it relates to food,” Larson says.
“Being in the food business for three generations, we wanted to be in the food category,” Bruce Olson, who also regularly volunteers for the program, says of the family’s involvement. His grandfather was a grocery owner in Minneapolis, and his father opened a food brokerage, which Olson ran and eventually sold. “We’re happy to be a part of [Mobile Market],” he says.
Mobile Market makes specific delivery locations (CommonBond affordable housing in Maple Plain and Mound) where there’s a concentrated group that can benefit from this service, says Christie Larson, WeCAN executive director. Volunteers organize food bags, load the program’s van and deliver groceries to 40 apartment households. MOW recipients make up another dozen or so clients.
“It relieves the stressfulness of running out of fresh milk or other food,” Felt says. “It tends to get you organized in your proper nutrition every month.” Felt says he suffers from diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), leaving him with limited mobility, and he needs the service to help him obtain food between the days when he’s exhausted his financial resources and the arrival of his Social Security check.
Says Mary McKinley, a volunteer with Mobile Market since it began, “It addresses an overlooked need of a rapidly growing population, including people who, for whatever reason, can’t get to a food shelf.” McKinley thinks the service also has larger implications: It enables some recipients to remain living independently, delaying or avoiding the transition to long-term care facilities. “It’s a huge program in a little bitty van,” she says.
As the program gained speed, another in-need demographic was identified—children, particularly those who receive meal assistance through their school districts (schools provide breakfast and/or lunch to students from low-income families). That school program works well until weekends or school breaks, but then another chasm appears. “We were finding some kids were hoarding food before school breaks or weekends,” Larson says.
To address the issue, Mobile Market partnered with the Westonka School District to identify in-need students. No documentation of need is required, and those children identified by the district are given 10 pounds of kid-friendly food, including individual-size macaroni and cheese cups, peanut butter, jelly and granola bars, for example. “We have gotten very positive feedback,” notes Larson. “I think the numbers speak for themselves. When we piloted the program this summer, we served about 15 bags a week. During the 2014 Christmas break, we gave out more than 125 bags.”
But where does all this food come from? Last summer, General Mills donated more than $5,000 worth of food, enabling Mobile Market to get up and running, Larson explains. Other food sources include area food banks, where items can be purchased at a drastically reduced rate. For every dollar Mobile Market spends, it receives $7 in grocery items. Staff also visits local grocers for “food recovery” to procure items that are nearing their expiration date or products that the store is discontinuing. Local community gardens also donate fresh produce.
Increasing public awareness about Mobile Market is vital for its success, Larson says, but achieving that isn’t always easy. “Especially in the Lake Minnetonka area, because there is a lot of wealth, people assume there isn’t need, which isn’t the case,” Larson says. “There are still pockets of poverty in our area.”
WeCAN’s service area includes Mound, Minnetrista, Rockford, Spring Park, St. Bonifacius, Tonka Bay, Navarre, Minnetonka Beach, Maple Plain, Loretto, Independence and Greenfield. To find out how you can help, visit weCAN-help.org and click on the donation icon.