The McLeod Emergency Food Shelf is going on the road with its new mobile outreach bus. You can't miss it. The white bus is brightly detailed with fruits and vegetables and bears the message: “Driving Away Hunger.”
The new program, which launches Monday, Aug. 10, will bring — twice a month — the food shelf to the McLeod County communities of Plato, Lester Prairie, Winsted, Silver Lake, Brownton and Stewart.
"(It is) designed to reduce transportation and mobility issues associated with food access in our communities," said Lenny Albers, executive director of the McLeod Emergency Food Shelf.
Between now and Aug. 10, Albers said she and a board member will make several test runs.
"We want to work out the kinks," she said. "There's a lot of detail. We want things to work in the bus the way they are suppose to. The tricky part is how much food to bring. We're working out those details, as well as data entry, being able to do the paperwork part of it on the road. We want to make sure we have a good data connection."
The mobile site will work similar to the fixed sites in Hutchinson and Glencoe. Clients will register, wait in line and then step into the bus and shop.
"We'll be following Minnesota Health Department guidelines," Albers said. "Ideally, we would like them to make their own selections. We will stock the bus as we stock our food shelf, but the variety may be limited due to space. We are going to have as many options as possible: pantry-stable goods, dairy, meat, fresh produce and bakery."
REACHING THE ISOLATED
The mobile food outreach project, which was made possible with a $45,000 grant from the CARES Act and funding from local sources, was started more than a year ago. It began with the question: How do we reach people who are isolated?
To find out more, Albers and board members visited programs in St. Cloud and Belle Plaine. Two models are typically used: prepack, where clients order their food in advance and it's delivered at the community site, or on-site shopping, which allows clients to choose their own groceries.
"It just makes sense to go where we think the people are," Albers said. "It will take awhile to build, for people to recognize the bus. They'll inquire about it and want to check it out."
People will be able to utilize the bus and the food shelf. At the present time, clients can receive one full distribution every 30 days at any location. Fresh produce is available weekly.
This means if you pick up your full distribution in Glencoe, you can pick up fresh produce at the mobile site twice a month. You can also pick up your full distribution from a mobile site and fresh produce at the Glencoe or Hutchinson food shelves.
"We keep records," Albers said. "We'll bring a laptop with us to check people in. A good data connection is important. We want to be able to report accurate numbers."
Community liaisons are also needed to assist at the mobile sites in Plato, Lester Prairie, Winsted, Brownton, Stewart and Silver Lake.
"A staff person will be driving the vehicle. We can't carry a passenger, so we are asking for community liaison volunteers to meet us at the distribution site and help with shopping," Albers said. "It's a team effort working together. It's not a huge commitment, but we want people to show up for it to run smoothly and go fast."
For more information or to volunteer, call Albers at 320-864-2088.
PARTICIPATION IS DOWN
"March 9 is when things started to change in our community. To present, we're down about 24 percent in usage," Albers said. "Our Hutchinson site is down almost 30 percent, and Glencoe is down almost 11 percent, although we are seeing an increase in our migrant population due to the start of pea pack and corn pack."
Albers described their initial response to the drop in usage as "shocking."
"The first weeks we couldn't wrap our heads around it," she said. "The stay-at-home orders and a large portion of folks on disability, whose income was not affected, couldn't get out. That's why it's so important to be in the community with food."
In retrospect, Albers believes people are being taken care of due to the increase in unemployment benefits, the free summer lunch program and the stimulus program.
"It carried a lot of people through," she said. "As those benefits decrease, and if there is not an extension, we'll see an increase of people we've never met before, and just people who need extra support."
Minnesota Community Action Partnership and United Way of McLeod County hosted a poverty simulation in Glencoe. Albers attended and had a first-hand experience in what it was like to visit the food shelf and have it closed.
"During the simulation, I tried to go to the food shelf a couple of times, but it was closed," she said. "I took that back at the end of the day. That's how food shelves operate. Your hours are limited. It hit me the limited hours were a struggle and frustrating. It was a theoretical example. You can be there, but if you're not accessible, are you really doing your job?
"Being out in the community when we're not open, being there after work and between shifts, that's important," Albers said. "Our (mobile) schedule is all over the place. We're looking at those buildings. We talked to apartment managers and asked, 'When do you see movement?' so we can target when people are there."
Launching the mobile outreach program has been a big project and it's something Albers and the board of directors are passionate about.
"Everybody was assigned to a committee," she said. "For some, their work is done — a vehicle has been purchased. We plug people in as duties present themselves. It's been good. Everybody has been engaged, on board and very excited."