Regional food recovery effort keeps excess fresh food out of landfills, fills gaps in food insecurity

A group of six people work around food preparing meals.
Volunteers with South Central Minnesota Food Recovery prepare meals to be sent to a local food shelf in Mankato on July 21.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Deisy De Leon Esqueda is really busy. As manager of the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, she’s been seeing increases in the number of clients since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  ECHO serves an average between 90 to 125 households daily. 

But some days Esqueda has a problem - too much food.

“If we receive a large shipment of something and we just know that we’re not going to be able to distribute it in a timely manner, we’ll call other food shelves,” she said. “And we’ll say, ‘This is what we have. What can you use? What can you distribute?’” 

People look over a log sheet
Deisy De Leon Esqueda, right, manager of ECHO Food Shelf, checks off a name on a log sheet as a group of migrant workers stopped at the food shelf to receive food in Mankato, Minn. on July 22.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Some products have a short shelf life. Esqueda said that if other food shelves aren’t able to take them, because of the lack of freezer or storage space, then the food items usually wind up in a landfill instead of on someone’s dinner table.

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That’s where the South Central Minnesota Food Recovery Project based at the Wooden Spoon in Old Town Mankato steps in. The kitchen staff comes up with recipes from the surplus to feed clients throughout southwest Minnesota and prevent wasting still good food. 

Volunteers come in to chop vegetables and assemble meals made of roasted cauliflower, carrots and chicken. The food then goes back out as small to family-size meals. 

Small servings of food are prepared.
Volunteers with South Central Minnesota Food Recovery prepare meals to be sent to a local food shelf in Mankato on July 21.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

From May to October 2021, the project made 8,250 meals, almost 11,700 servings of food. Wooden Spoon owner and project head Natasha Frost said they’re most likely to exceed those numbers this year. 

“We’re trying to get to where the people already are,” Frost said. “So that it’s as easy for them as possible, because when people are experiencing multiple barriers to their lives, we want to make it as easy as possible to get the food.”

The root of this project Frost said is equity. She says it’s part of a movement aiming to not only widen universal access to healthy food, but also examine structural roots of racial and economic disparities in food systems that largely affect those of low-income and BIPOC communities. She says those can lead to hunger, lack of nutritious and affordable food, diet-related illness and other gaps.

The Food Recovery Project also intersects with environmental concerns, aiming to mitigate the effects of climate change from wasted food sitting in landfills. Last year, Frost said the project recovered nearly 43 tons of food and prevented the release of 200 metric tons of greenhouse gases. 

Providing access to meals is critical in other areas including affordable housing. Trisha Anderson, interim executive director of Partners for Affordable Housing, has social workers who pick up meals to stock fridges at nearby shelters. Some clients or families might be in transitional housing or are living without access to stoves to cook their own meals. 

“They’re not just having to have microwave dinners that they get from a grocery store quickly,” Anderson said. “They have full, healthy meals prepared for them and that’s one less worry in their busy days while they’re working on getting housing stability.”

Most distribution partners come and pick up requested meals from the Wooden Spoon, but Frost delivers many of the volunteer-packed meals directly to ECHO Food Shelf. Manager Esqueda estimated the food shelf saved more than 100,000 pounds of food in 2021 because of the Food Recovery Project. 

“It just gives us another opportunity to be able to use that food so it extends the shelf life of that item,” she said. “And then in the end, it just helps us feed more families.”

A volunteer helps to distribute food.
Dennis Wendland, left, a volunteer at ECHO Food Shelf gets a thank you from a woman as a group of migrant workers received food on July 22 outside of the food shelf in Mankato, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Outside Esqueda greets some of about 70 migrant workers who have come for food boxes to get them through the week. She translates for Luis Gerardo Lule Amezquita, 46, who lives in North Mankato at a hotel with many of the other migrants. He tells her this was his third visit to the ECHO Food Shelf. 

“Sometimes because of work, they just don’t have the time to cook,” she said. “So for them, it’s a meal. That it’s ready to go. They can eat it right away or they can take it as lunch.”

Esqueda gets to see the food cycle from start to finish, and for her, that feels deeply satisfying. 

“We take for granted things that we think everybody else has, like necessities, a home or working refrigerator, a stove and not everybody has access to that,” she said. “Being able to have a meal that is ready to eat, it might be exactly what somebody needs.”

A person slides food into large containers
Natasha Frost, owner of Wooden Spoon in Mankato, Minn. puts more cauliflower into tubs as a group of volunteers for South Central Minnesota Food Recovery made meals for a local food shelf on July 21.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News