As winter nears, food shelves aim to make harvest last

Vegetables at the St. Paul Farmers Market (MPR Photo/Julie Siple)

Many Minnesota food shelves are stocked this fall with foods they rarely offered two decades ago: squash, peas, watermelon, strawberries. Hunger relief groups have ramped up efforts to put surplus produce on the plates of hungry Minnesotans, and the result is an ever-growing supply of fruits and vegetables from local gardens, farms and food processors.

That has some food shelf directors wishing they could make it last into the winter.

"Is there a way to preserve it, where we could can it, dry it, freeze it? I don't know," said Cathy Maes, executive director of ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka. "But I feel like there's an opportunity missed."

Like many food shelves in the state, ICA offers an increasing amount of fresh produce but doesn't have a safe and cost-effective way to preserve it for the winter months. At ICA, that's primarily because the food shelf doesn't have a certified commercial kitchen, Maes said.

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"If we could find a partner to do that, I'm sure that we could be making a lot of apple sauce. We could be freezing beautiful sweet corn," she said. "And we could have stewed tomatoes to give out to our clients in the winter."

Maes' food shelf gets produce from multiple sources, including local farmers who drop off truckloads of vegetables. If ICA could preserve some of that bounty, Maes said she could take in yet larger quantities and spread it across the cold months.

"For the lean times in the winter when all we hand out are potatoes and onions," she said. "I'd love to be able to hand out squash that's been pureed and frozen."

Across the Twin Cities metro area, Lisa Horn is thinking much the same thing. Horn runs the Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center, which prioritizes nutrition and now offers 70 to 80 percent perishable food, a growing amount of it produce.

But Horn doesn't just want to preserve that produce for the winter -- she wants to engage families who use the food shelf in the process. The organization has a responsibility to help families build skills of their own, she said.

"We might get in many bushels of tomatoes," Horn said. "Well, it would be great if we could then pull those out of our inventory, bring them into a kitchen with a group of our client families and say, 'Here's how you can these tomatoes. Feel free to take them home when you're done.'"

That would require qualified instructors and a kitchen, she said.

The Eagan and Lakeville Resource Center is lucky to be able to even think about produce preservation, added Horn, who noted that many Minnesota food shelves aren't in the same spot.

"I think there are food shelves in the state that are positioned to take that next step," she said. "I also think there are food shelves that are still in a position of, 'We don't even have enough refrigerator space to take produce. Period.'"