Besides their standard tools, Hennepin County sheriff's deputies patrolling the streets of downtown Minneapolis this summer will be packing a box filled with oatmeal and other healthy foods.
The deputies are part of a new program run by the nonprofit group Matter. It's designed to fill some gaps in the food system and get nutritious food into the hands of those who need it but may not have access to food assistance or food banks.
Patrol vehicles will be loaded with bright orange boxes filled with granola bars or canned vegetables. Sheriff Rich Stanek said it's a way for officers to immediately help people they come into contact with.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we will come across a number of those who are less fortunate, maybe even homeless," Stanek said. "This will allow the deputies to build a little rapport, reach out to them, [offer] a healthy alternative to what they might be doing."
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated last year that almost 11 percent of Minnesotans could be classified as food insecure, which means they don't know where their next meal is coming from.
Matter, formerly known as Hope for the City, works on food issues locally and internationally. President Quenton Marty said the project's goal isn't to replace or replicate the services provided by food banks or other emergency food organizations.
"We wanted to say, 'Where are some gaps where we can step in?'" Marty said. "We're trying to reach the nontraditional places."
Matter hopes to distribute 15,000 boxes of food through its partners at the sheriff's office, Hennepin County Medical Center and three local schools in the first year of the program. The group aims to distribute 5 million meals over the next three years.
The group works with a number of corporate partners and volunteers to raise money for the box project, which costs roughly $1 a meal.
Joe Newhouse, who is directing Matter's food box program, said the group also hopes to address the issue of obesity by filling the boxes with food that is not only filling but healthy. The breakfast box contains oatmeal, raisins and a granola bar. The family-sized box has canned vegetables and fruit, as well as recipes for dishes like bean burgers.
"Most of the stuff that is ready to eat and shelf-stable tends to be over-processed, again with high sugar and sodium content," Newhouse said. "We worked with dieticians to try to be really intentional about what we put in these boxes."
Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, which advocates for food relief and assistance, said that the Matter project can help fill some immediate food needs, but that the state as a whole needs to address why many people can't afford healthy food in the first place.
"The problem is people don't have a living-wage position, or they're not able to have a job, or have a disability," Moriarty said. "The problem is that they don't have enough money to pay all the bills they have."