Garden bounty a windfall for Minnesota food shelves

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Dennis Stelter stands in his garden
Dennis Stelter stands in his garden near his southwestern Minnesota farm home.
Mark Steil | MPR News

On a nice summer day, there's a good chance that Dennis Stelter will spend some time in his garden, tending long rows of everything from broccoli to watermelons.

The garden's about the size of two basketball courts, and has its successes and failures. This year the cucumbers are great, even though the carrots didn't make it.

Stelter, 83, clearly enjoys the bounty he's coaxed from the soil near his southwestern Minnesota farm home. He eats what he can, but he ends up giving away most of the produce, much of it to friends and family but also to the Kitchen Table Food Shelf in nearby Marshall, Minn.

Stelter donated about 1,000 pounds of vegetables last year to the food organization and is on track to surpass that figure this year. "It's my good deed for the summer, I suppose," he said.

"Dennis comes almost every single day that we're open," said Lori Lerohl, who coordinates volunteers at the Kitchen Table Food Shelf. "Really brightens our day when he comes because he's always got a smile on his face. And he knows that he's really blessing other people."

Dennis Stelter holds a tomato.
Dennis Stelter holds a tomato, grown in the garden he keeps near is farm home in southwestern Minnesota.
Mark Steil | MPR News

Scenes like this play out at other food shelves across the state as the vegetable harvest season peaks. The produce comes from a variety of sources — individuals, commercial farming operations, and grocery stores.

Food organizations in recent years have emphasized fresh food, and that's been a major change said Bob Chatmas, chief operating officer for Twin Cities-based food bank Second Harvest Heartland.

For decades, canned foods and other products easily stored for long periods of time were the main offerings of food groups that catered to low-income people. That's changed over the last decade as studies showed that large amounts of vegetables and fruits go uneaten.

Organizations like Second Harvest Heartland began to pull that food into their distribution networks, said Chatmas, who estimates Second Harvest has tripled the amount of produce it's distributed since 2012.

"Fresh produce is too expensive for some people who are struggling with their finances," he said. "We know that people who are hungry appreciate fresh and nutritious food, so having more produce and growing our produce to distribute to our hungry neighbors is absolutely the right thing to do."

Dennis Stelter stands in his garden.
Dennis Stelter is part of a growing effort to make more fresh produce available to food shelf users.
Mark Steil | MPR News

Standing in his garden, that's something Dennis Stelter agrees with.

"Makes you feel good, that you can help some people out," he said.

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