Minneapolis, Minnesota

You can help alleviate hunger in Minnesota by buying and eating loads of bananas.

Through a mechanism of recovery and donation, the empty cartons in which the Chiquita company ships bananas to wholesale grocers and retail stores find their way to a 65,000 sq. ft. warehouse in New Hope, a suburban community of Minneapolis. There, an army of volunteers packs 35-40 pounds of food into each box for distribution to a network of 200 foodshelves and relief programs in 35 Minnesota counties.

This distribution process is the centerpiece of the programs operated by the Emergency Foodshelf Network, a nonprofit foodbank founded in 1976 to collect, warehouse, and distribute high quality food and provide essential support services.

The foodbank system can be reduced to numbers, each number ultimately representing individual people in the system.

EFN’s warehouse itself would be a performing artist’s dream facility. The second floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis has two, freespan dance studios – each two stories high – and accompanying office space that occupy roughly 7,500 sq. ft. The EFN space is larger by more than 8-1/2 times!

Volunteers provided EFN with more than 200,000 hours of service last year, worth $3.9 million. Nearly 75 hours were donated today by 27 members of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus in an outing organized by Jason Schuck, the chorus president.

The day’s efforts were inspired by the theme of the chorus’s March concert performances: “Food, Glorious Food!” Songs with a culinary flavor will be accented by advice from guest food diva Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of The Splendid Table® on American Public Media.

Under the direction of Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Cobb, 17 guys sorted through tons of donated canned and packaged goods for 2-1/2 hours, discarding a motley variety of paper bags and boxes while checking expiration dates. For present purposes, all peanut butter items, a considerable number, were set aside. Then, they assembled a balanced collection of foodstuffs into the Chiquita cartons – whose ratio of tops to bottoms was duly noted by some to be equal. Packed cartons were stacked on pallets, three deep, three wide, and five high. Just shy of eight pallets were stacked containing nearly 13,000 pounds of food.

Ten other men re-packed meat into 365 “mega-meat packages,” each providing servings for an average family unit of four.

Once the statistics are entered into the tracking system, EFN will send an email to its member agencies telling them it has 13,000 pounds of food ready for distribution. Agencies will then order what they need, either for delivery by EFN or pickup by the agency. Approximately 4,900 people will eat food from today’s packaging.

The average foodshelf site in EFN’s network receives 800 pounds of free food per month, equal to 50 bags of groceries. On average, this translates into a distribution of one bag of food per person, per family.

According to EFN’s website, for each individual, corporate, foundation, and government dollar donated, 92¢ is expended directly on programs. The agency does not charge its members fees of any kind for its services, and operates with a lean staff of 27 and a fleet of five vehicles. In addition to distributing free food, EFN makes bulk purchases at discount to resell without markup to its members.

The United States does not lack for sufficient food to feed its people. What is lacking is the capacity of individuals to purchase what is needed. A recent survey by Hormel Foods reported that one in four Minnesotans said they or a family member had visited a food shelf. One in 10 said they or someone in their family went to bed hungry in the past month because of lack of money for food.

Each year, 96 billion pounds of food, 27% of the U.S. food supply, is wasted and thrown away. EFN’s Lost Harvest program attempts to salvage some of this. Here’s how.

Consumers have become accustomed to purchasing produce of uniform size and color from their grocery displays. Consequently, at the U.S./Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona, thousands of tons of perfectly good, fresh produce are sent to landfills because they are misshapen or off-color. One truck, 35,000 pounds, of such produce is worth $100,000 and can feed 8,000 individuals. EFN’s only cost is that of its transport from Arizona to Minnesota for $4,000 per truck. In 2008, EFN transported and distributed 1 million pounds of produce – with a value of $2.8 million – at a total transport cost of around $114,000.

Like the rest of this operation, that is nonprofit and free market efficiency at its best. Even our new, Wall Street socialists should support that!

The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus will present “Food, Glorious Food!” at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 4th Street South, Minneapolis, Fri-Sat, Mar. 27-28, 8pm. Tickets: $23-$43, 612.624.2345.

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