Grants make it possible to add culturally specific foods and better serve immigrant and elderly clients.
Imagine turning to a food shelf for help feeding yourself of your family, only to find it stocked with unrecognizable cans and boxes. At many local charities, some clients — immigrant and elderly residents in particular — have left empty-handed because the available food was unfamiliar or unpalatable.
Others were dropping in but not returning, for the same reason.
In response to the area's increasingly diverse population and the still-strong need for help, 17 Twin Cities food shelves have broadened their ethnic food offerings under an initiative by the Emergency Foodshelf Network.
The effort to offer food packages including such items as fufu flour, maggi, bamboo shoots and maseca is the first of its kind by a food bank in Minnesota. Using grants totaling $55,000 from the Otto Bremer Foundation and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, the network has more than doubled the volume of its culturally specific offerings, from 700 packages each month to 1,700.
"As the immigrant population in our state continues to grow, there's a real need for foods these populations are accustomed to cooking with," said Lori Kratchmer, executive director of the Emergency Foodshelf Network.
The food bank, based in New Hope, already had been using a Hennepin County grant to provide East African foods; those and West African cultural foods were available at five partner food shelves. Now, African, Southeast Asian and Hispanic clients at an additional 12 metro locations can pick up foods from their own cultures.
At member agency Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, more than 30 percent of clients are southeast Asian immigrants, said Christine Pulver, basic needs program director.
"We've all heard how food shelf needs are going up over the last five years, but as needs are increasing, we have to understand those are the needs of all ethnic groups," she said. "If we simply do not have the things they're used to, often clients are leaving with less food than they could."
Survey drove change
The new grants allowed for research to determine which member organizations had the most urgent need for which kinds of foods. Emergency Foodshelf Network program coordinator Win Moua examined participation data and visited food shelves to learn what kinds of foods clients wanted and weren't finding. Her findings echoed Pulver's assessment that clients were being underserved, and also that potential clients were coming in and not returning because they weren't finding items they knew how to prepare. Of the 24 agencies that responded to her survey, Moua selected 12 that demonstrated the highest need.
Kratchmer noted that last year's ethnic food offerings — before this program started — made up 10 percent of all the food the network distributed; with the new items, she hopes to double that this year. But she went on to say that there's a much larger demand.
"We've never met the need that's out there," she said. "We're still not meeting the needs of everything they're asking us for."
Pulver granted that immigrant families could make use of whatever is available to them, but she added that research has found people often are healthiest when they stay with traditional diets.
It's hardest with older immigrants, said.
"What in the world would you do with a can of cream of mushroom soup?" she asked. "Younger clients are beginning to eat cold cereal for breakfast, and there may even be milk in the house. But Hmong elders, for both food supply and language barriers, have been the most difficult clients to serve effectively."
One day last week at Keystone Community Services food shelf on Rice Street in St. Paul's West End neighborhood, Mai Yang beamed and nodded as food shelf assistant Der Chang showed her the contents of the Southeast Asian food package. Normally, Yang said, she comes to the food shelf for meat, rice and produce, avoiding the canned goods.
"There's really nothing that she really likes," Chang translated, "especially for her as an older woman."
With Chang as a translator, Yang, 72, said she was thankful for the 4-pound bag of basmati rice she received, a supplement to the small packages of white rice that usually are available.
"She said she prefers Asian rice," Chang said. "It's healthier and tastes better, and it's better for elder people's tastes."
With the bean noodles, Yang said, she'd make a noodle salad. The rice noodles would make a good soup for her grandchildren.