Free grocery store aims to remove stigma of food aid

A display of fresh produce at Today’s Harvest Market.
A display of fresh produce at Today’s Harvest Market.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Unlike most other food shelf operations, Today’s Harvest doesn’t ask clients questions about who they are and how much they earn. Instead, six days a week it welcomes anyone into what feels like a small grocery store, except everything is free. 

“It is really designed to imitate the grocery store as much as possible,” said Jessica Francis, who runs the Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf, which operates two Today’s Harvest free stores in Oakdale. 

Both are increasingly busy places, given what’s going on with inflation.

“As the gas prices have increased and food prices have increased they're just not able to make ends meet,” Francis said of people who use the stores. “And so if they can come here and supplement and make sure that they still have the fresh produce and the milk and the meat and items and still be able to make those basic bills paid it's a huge difference for them.”

A woman stands in a grocery store.
Jessica Francis is the executive director of Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The offerings at both stores change daily and quantities for free shoppers are limited based on inventory. All of the food is donated by area grocery stores. 

“So we have Kowalski’s, Lunds and Byerlys, Cub, Jerry's--we have food from a lot of different grocery stores,” Francis said.

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Christian Cupboard decided to open this second location less than a year after its first free store opened because demand has been so strong.

“Everyday we're serving two to three times as many people as we had been expecting to serve,” Francis said. “And we said we wanted to expand that and make it available because people were coming from all over to go to that market. We had people from over 135 different zip codes that that market was serving. And so we wanted to make it even more accessible.”

A refrigerator freezer display stores food
A freezer displays food available at Today’s Harvest Market.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Among Christian Cupboard’s supporters is Minnesota-based 2nd Harvest Heartland, one of the nation’s largest food banks. CEO Allison O’Toole said, as more Minnesotans struggle with food insecurity, finding new ways to get people what they need is a top priority. O’Toole applauded the free store model at Today’s Harvest and thinks it could work in other other places too.

“Our focus is on easy access concepts that help people access food that removes barriers to that food and breaks down stigmas,” O’Toole said. ”That's the name of the game. That's the sweet spot.”

Earlier this week, a 68-year-old woman was on her way into the newest Today's Harvest in Oakdale. 

“I'm hoping for some good fresh vegetables. I've had some incredible things I've never had before,” she said, adding that she didn’t want her name used because she said there is shame associated with getting food handouts. 

“There are people I don't want to know, including coworkers and some friends,” the woman said. 

A woman sits in a dining room set-up.
Barbara Littlefield is a professional grocery shopper who cannot afford to buy her own food. She is a regulator at Today’s Harvest Market.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

As an Instacart shopper, Barbara Littlefield spends a lot of her time buying groceries and delivering them to other people. She cannot afford to do that for herself, so she is a regular at Today's Harvest which she says is a lot different than food shelves she's gone to for help.

“I think it feels more dignified,” Littlefield, 45, said. “And I feel like this stigma it has, you know they have done away with that concept. Because nobody likes to admit that they go to a food shelf. I'm more open about it because I am very passionate about everybody being able to eat healthy and good food."