A million years ago (or, as some like to call it, March 2020), the pandemic arrived in Minnesota, and many aspects of the local food community imploded. Restaurants closed, then reopened for takeout, then for limited dining, and some closed altogether. Chefs were under- or unemployed. Farmers had already done their planning (and, in some cases, early planting) based on a nonpandemic plan, one that involved selling tons of produce and farm goods at farm markets, to restaurants, wholesalers, and schools. As unemployment exploded, food shelves faced unprecedented demand, yet weren’t equipped to handle mountains of highly perishable foods farmers were anxious to donate rather than waste.
All this happened during incredible chaos, when it seemed like the news changed every day. No one knew much about this virus, how it spread, how to prevent it, what was safe and what was not. The problems it created seemed insurmountable.
It’s a cliché to talk about people who rise above in times like this and heroically come up with solutions where there seemingly were none, but that’s what happened with the creation of Minnesota Central Kitchen (MCK) and the reinvention of the Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund (LEAFF).
MCK was spearheaded by Second Harvest Heartland. “MCK is the culmination of a crisis response for COVID,” said Emily Paul, MCK’s executive director. “Schools, businesses, restaurants, caterers were all shutting down. Second Harvest was triaging what food insecurity was about to look like.”
They’d also been inspired by a recent Twin Cities visit from World Central Kitchen’s Jose Andres. “We thought, how do we come together as a community?” said Paul. The answer was by partnering with other food organizations in the community to pivot from their usual work into an entirely different model. MCK quickly organized a system that could rescue food that would otherwise be wasted and get it into commercial kitchens. There, teams of chefs that needed work were ready to prepare the food into meals that are donated to people in need both in the metro and in greater Minnesota.
But MCK knew that the need wasn’t just the food. “It was important to us that these kitchen workers be compensated,” said Paul. “This is an employment opportunity as much as food relief.” Not only the kitchen staff, but the farmers are paid.
Liz Mullen, executive chef at Chowgirls Catering, was involved early on. “We started the week of March 15,” she said. “Our business just disappeared, poof. But we’ve always had a relationship with Second Harvest, and we started thinking, ‘Hey, we have this whole kitchen, people will need food.’ It was a five-day span of closing down the Chowgirls work and opening MCK.” It wasn’t long before the likes of the Sioux Chef, Wedge Table, and Appetite for Change had signed on for culinary duties.
TENS OF THOUSANDS OF HUNGRY PEOPLE, AND A MILLION POUNDS OF FOOD
According to Paul, MCK produced 2,500 meals for its first delivery. By the end of August, they’d produced nearly 700,000 meals, about 25,000 each week. They have more than 140 chefs and hospitality workers across eight kitchens, and they’ve cooked nearly a million pounds of food.
About those meals: These are not sad institutional plates of glop going out into the world. “The food donations make it like a big Iron Chef challenge every week,” laughed Paul. “Our meals are approachable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate.” She noted that in one 72-hour period, Chowgirls produced nearly 5,000 meals comprised of things like fish cakes with cabbage and carrot slaw; turkey meatloaf, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, and creamy kale; Italian sausage, peppers, and onions, pasta, and roast eggplant with tahini dressing; ratatouille, turkey sloppy Joes, cucumber and onion salad; and beef brisket, braised greens with bacon, roasted carrots and new potatoes.
Chefs like Mullen have also joined forces with partner The Food Group to get food donations into the kitchens. “We’ve gone with them to go gleaning at farms. We’re gleaning for food shelves. We’ll take blemished produce that’s harder to sell. Food waste is already a huge part of the food problem today. It’s hard for them to sell it, but our turnover of food for MCK is so fast that the foods don’t have time to spoil.”
As to the support it provides farmers, Seeds Farm’s Becca Carlson is unequivocally thankful. Carlson’s farm transitioned from retail to wholesale four years ago and largely sells to places like restaurant and grocery distributors and Minneapolis Public Schools. “We usually buy our seeds in January and start doing things like seeding onions in February. So by the time COVID came, we were already well on track. It was hard to pivot. Many of our contracts fell through, for understandable reasons. Thankfully and fortunately, MCK was there to pick up the slack. This year would have been devastating for us. But with MCK, we’ll be OK.”
She noted the trickle-down effects of MCK’s work. “They prioritized working with local farmers. That keeps the money here. People working on farms are getting paychecks they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It’s a huge blessing.”
SUPPORTING BIPOC FARMERS
Another metro organization, The Good Acre, already had an emergency plan in the form of the Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund (LEAFF). “We’ve had the LEAFF program for a couple of years,” said The Good Acre’s executive director, Rhys Williams. “It’s a way to help a farmer who’s been hit hard through an unexpected emergency. For example, we could provide $5,000 to a farmer who lost a hoophouse in a storm.”
COVID, however, would provide different challenges. “We began reaching out to BIPOC farmers with small farms as a response,” he said. “We started talking in March about how farmers markets were going to have difficulty. Many of these small farms rely on those markets for income.”
The Good Acre decided to focus its emergency funds on those BIPOC farmers. They reached out to Mill City Farmers Market and Lakewinds Coop, both of which were interested in combining their own farmer funds with LEAFF to make the funds go further. The Hmong-American Partnership reached out as well. “Our approach was, ‘Bring it to us, we’ll figure out how to pay for it,’” he said.
LEAFF uses donations to pay for food that can be donated to food shelves. “We’ve set up a pricing system that’s fair to the farmers. We’ve donated food in south and north Minneapolis, and in St. Paul. We’ve donated to three Hmong schools that have their own food shelves.”
The need was immediate. “Markets were down by 50% this year,” he said. “Some markets never opened. People just didn’t have time to prepare. By the time we realized how bad the virus was, crops were planted.”
Twin Cities Green Farm’s Wa Kou Hang, who sells his produce at the Fulton and Kingfield Farmers Markets, feels LEAFF has been a game-changer. “I heard about LEAFF from the staff at The Good Acre and also the Hmong-American Partnership,” he said. “LEAFF is so helpful. Without it, I would suffer. This year I increased my farm from one to two acres, so I have more produce than before.”
Keeping funding going is of increasing importance for both MCK and LEAFF. The latter started out with $200,000 from the Bush Foundation. MCK’s Paul noted that the program is funded by donors, philanthropists, individuals, corporations, and foundations. “It was a challenge,” she said. “It was not something Second Harvest saw coming when they were planning their 2020 budget last year.”
Part of the challenge is the changing nature of the need. “The faces of hunger are changing,” Paul said. “People who were not food insecure two or three months ago are finding themselves insecure now. That might be because of joblessness, sickness, being homebound if they’re recovering from COVID. Everyone from young to elderly. It’s also essential employees who aren’t earning a lot. They’re doing critical work, putting in long days, and having a prepared meal delivered so they don’t have to come up with funds or food means a lot. It’s for senior citizens who are afraid to go to a food shelf, grocery store, or congregant meal setting. We deliver to cultural orgs, Pillsbury United Communities, the Dignity Center, teen homeless groups, family support orgs. We find where the need is and go there.”
Neither MCK nor LEAFF thinks the need will go away anytime soon. “The Good Acre really reassessed what we’re going to do,” said Williams. “Recently we delivered 700 cases of food. I thought we wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. But people asked for more. We have great food organizations doing this work here, they’ve been doing it for years, but the need has grown so fast.”
MCK’s Paul concurs. “As for the future, we’re building the plane as we’ve been flying it,” she said. “The need isn’t going away soon. Second Harvest sees that, and we’re working to build strategic partnerships.”
“It’s a big concern for us,” said Chowgirls’ Mullen. “We want the program to last as long as the need exists. We began talking recently about how we could get to a million meals by the end of the year, and then we had to stop and think about how insane that was. One million meals!” For her, this is the most important work she’s ever done. “I’ve been in the hospitality industry for 25 years. I’ve worked in small independent upscale restaurants, opened hotels, always loved feeding people. This was a change. Not feeding people just out of joy, but out of necessity. What is necessary in life? The need is just insane right now. The need is tripled.”