Bridging the Hunger Gap

The Mission of Second Harvest North Central Food Bank


Toni Sausman (left) and Carol Charpentier utilize food distributed from Second
Harvest North Central Food Bank of Grand Rapids at the Longville Food Shelf.

FOOD INSECURITY. In the midst of Lake Country’s bounty, it’s difficult to imagine that many people can’t guarantee where their next meal is coming from — or if they will be able to provide enough food for their children.

Even with our golden harvest season upon us, almost 20 percent of the children in Cass and Crow Wing counties are at risk of going to bed hungry. As summer turns into fall and the cold weather looms, many families face a difficult choice — do they pay for heating oil or put food on the table?

Fortunately, we have Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “We’re part of Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief charity in the United States,” explains Susan Estee, Second Harvest’s executive director. “They have a network of two hundred food banks that covers every county in the United States.”

Second Harvest, in turn, distributes food to the food shelves and soup kitchens in local communities. That means making deliveries to one hundred fifteen agencies across a seven-county service area that spans northcentral Minnesota from International Falls to Princeton.

Estee describes Second Harvest as “a distribution center of free food. We’re like the wholesaler and the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ agencies, the food shelves and the soup kitchens, are the retailers.

“Any nonprofit that provides food to low-income people as part of their mission can access food from Second Harvest. Every organization that gets food from the food bank is responsible for some kind of accountability for their clients.” All recipients must meet low-income qualifications.

“The food primarily comes from national donations. Since there are no food manufacturers or wholesalers in northern Minnesota and there are no distribution centers, we depend on Feeding America and our Minnesota food bank organization to access the donated food from industry.”

Large companies donate food “because, for some reason, it is unsellable at the retail level,” Estee explains. There may have been a mistake on the label or package, or it could be a production overrun where they simply produced too much to sell. In any case, it’s good food at the right price – it’s free.

When the food comes in, Second Harvest goes to work. Volunteers repackage the items, which frequently arrive in bulk, into smaller quantities that are useable for food shelves or individuals. This can include creating special “kid-friendly” packages to be sent home with students in their backpacks or “commodity boxes” for senior citizens.

Recent developments in the food industry have triggered major adjustments on the part of Second Harvest and its member agencies. For one thing, food manufacturers are making fewer mistakes and tightening their margins. For another, the proliferation of dollar-type stores created a secondary market for much of the food that had previously been donated. “Shelf staples,” the cans and boxes that traditionally made up most of the food available at food shelves, now get sold to dollar discount stores.

“We had to make up the difference looking for other types of food because people still need it,” says Estee, so they’ve developed access to frozen foods and perishables like fresh produce, eggs, and milk. That, in turn, dramatically affected the distribution system because of the need for specialized storage and fast turnaround.

As Estee explains, “You have to get it out quick. We’ve had to work with our member agencies because traditional food shelves were open on the third Tuesday. With perishables, they have to be able to store and distribute them. It’s been a real challenge for them but it’s working because this is good healthy food.”

Another avenue the food bank has developed is “food recovery” from grocery stores. Food that is close to its expiration dates that would normally be pulled off shelves and thrown away is now collected and distributed by Second Harvest.

“We regularly go to major grocery stores in the community, pick up their product that’s close to expiration, and distribute it right away. We’re getting that product out to people who need it, and now that food isn’t going into the landfill.”

Although the food is free, creating and maintaining the distribution network isn’t. Second Harvest has a 20,000-square-foot warehouse that includes specialized storage areas for refrigerated and frozen foods, packing areas for repackaging foods, and rows of towering storage shelves. Most of their funding comes from fundraisers, grants, and handling fees charged to member agencies. Ten percent is from government support.

“Half of our funding comes from the small handling fee we charge to our member agencies,” Estee explains. “It’s ‘shared maintenance.’ They raise money in their local communities to share the costs of acquisition, warehousing, and distribution in getting the food from the food bank to them. On average, that amounts to about eighteen cents per pound.”

That price is more than reasonable, considering all that Second Harvest does. With a staff of fourteen and some five hundred volunteers, Second Harvest distributed 4.5 million pounds of food last year. In addition, the food bank offers training and support for member agencies’ personnel and provides outreach to clubs and organizations interested in finding out about hunger in their communities.

As Estee explains, Second Harvest takes “the larger approach” to the problems of hunger and poverty. “Not only do we want to help feed people, but we want to figure out what we can do so people don’t need us so much. We’re engaged in helping people learn how to help themselves.

“If it was easy it would have already been done,” she concludes. But Second Harvest continues the crusade, working diligently to bridge the hunger gap in northern Minnesota.

September is Hunger Action Month

The mission of Second Harvest is to engage the community to end hunger.

According to Susan Estee, executive director, “The need is much greater in rural communities. There aren’t that many opportunities for jobs that pay, and people don’t have the additional support services that you might have in a larger area. Around here, your option is your food shelf. That’s about it.”

She adds that hunger affects more children than adults because “many people who are in poverty have children. There are a lot of kids without food in the house. In fact, it’s almost one in five.”

Usage at the food bank spiked during the recession of 2008 and continued to increase “by double-digits for three or four years in a row.” After ten years, Estee says, “It’s starting to get better for the people who were really impacted by the recession, but just barely. The growth in usage seems to have slowed but we’re nowhere near where we were in 2008.”

Since September is “Hunger Action Month,” Estee encourages people to support their local food shelf or soup kitchen. “Almost all of your ‘boots-on-the-ground’ organizations are supported by volunteers. In fact, many of them are 100 percent volunteer-run, so volunteering is really important.”

Monetary contributions are also extremely important. As Estee explains, “Obviously, the fee that we charge the agencies to get the food out to them doesn’t come close to covering the cost for us to acquire it, store it, and then get it out, especially nowadays, with the cost of the perishables. Those who give to both their local food shelf and the food bank are supporting a valuable service to help people in their communities.”

To find out more, visit the Second Harvest website at “We are the local hunger experts,” Estee says. “We have statistics, studies, and surveys, so we know what the hunger situation is in our region.”