Leaders from Second Harvest Heartland, M Health Fairview and various food shelves and community organizations gathered Thursday to talk about solutions to the racial hunger divide and how to end food scarcity in Minnesota.
The conversation held at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis focused on the fact that populations of color in Minnesota face higher rates of food insecurity compared to white folks. For example, in 2020, Black Minnesotans faced hunger at six times the rate of white Minnesotans and Latinx Minnesotans at nearly five times that of white Minnesotans, according to Second Harvest Heartland,
Partnerships for success
Panelists talked about various partnerships that have allowed them to feed more people.
Deisy DeLeon Esqueda, who manages, ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, discussed immigrant communities staying in a hotel in North Mankato an hour and a half from the food shelf.
Esqueda found a way to give them all a ride to the food shelf because they were such a large group coming from far away. She reached out to the Mankato Transit System around eight months ago, and they’ve been giving the people rides to the food shelf and back to their hotel.
Other panelists, like Stacy Hammer, talked about what it was like starting a food shelf in a pandemic. Hammer is the director of Community Health at the Lower Sioux Health Care Center. At the time, she was working part-time in a clinic and was also the community health officer at the care center.
“A lot of my time was figuring out vaccinations, talking about testing protocol. And then in the other realm of my mind, I was thinking about food security,” Hammer said. “When we started talking about how we would start this, Kate Burggraff at the Foundation for Essential Needs became involved, and immediately I just had this huge sigh of relief, like, ‘Oh my God, there’s someone to help us because I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before.’ It was a frightening time.”
That food pantry has been open for one year now.
M Health Fairview has been participating in more health equity conversations with a new lens, said Diane Tran, the system executive director of community health equity and engagement.
“As we’ve started to understand more increasingly about the social determinants of health and the ways in which 90% of health is largely influenced by things that happen outside of our hospital and clinic walls, as we see the data that shows us how a three-mile distance between the ZIP codes that you live in can result in the difference of a 13-year life expectancy and understanding those systemic challenges, we have recognized that there are limits to our knowledge and what we can do alone,” Tran said.
M Health Fairview hired six bilingual, bicultural staff members who partner with different cultural communities in Minnesota. Tran says those “cultural brokers” have addressed some of the challenges preventing food security among various groups of people.
Panelists emphasized the need for sustainable funding, not only to large organizations but to grassroots ones, like Feeding the Dream, which was founded by Delinia Parris, a St. Paul resident.
Parris became a community stronghold, as she saw people struggling to meet their basic needs during the pandemic.
“Our food shelf closed down in 2016, so there was no food shelf in the community, but then the pandemic started, and people just started bringing stuff to my house … and putting it on my porch and saying, ‘You know where the need is. You know how to get it out to people,’” she said.
Two audience members, Sharon Ross and Tchaikovsky Rogers, who work with the St. Paul-based House of Refuge food shelf, reiterated the need for grassroots organizations to receive more funding.
Their clients come to House of Refuge from as far as Farmington because of the shopping experience that is emphasized there, Rogers said.
“They’re making life decisions at a gas pump. Our families are saying, ‘Do I get gas or do I get groceries?’ Our seniors are saying, ‘Do I get groceries or do I get my medicine?’ And so it’s like all of these barriers,” Ross said. “It’s like an onion. You gotta peel each layer, and after each layer, it’s a whole new fresh set of problems.”
Getting to know the community
Panelists also emphasized the importance of organizations that get to know the people they’re serving because of the community it builds.
Hammer discussed grants the health center received and how one foundation never visited the community. Instead, they had a phone call with them once a year.
“The data that they wanted was numbers. It was very quantitative. They didn’t want to hear stories because that didn’t really fit into their mold of where the funding was going and what it was doing,” she said.
When partners and funders visit, Hammer makes a point to educate them on the history of their communities.
“I think that’s really important for people to understand that we’re not in this place of being at the top of the chart in all of the health disparities because we chose to be in this position. It’s not something we’re just allowing to continue to happen,” she said. “There’s a lot of history as to why this happened, so I think that’s what it’s important to come to listen and learn.”
With the shifting racial landscape of Minnesota, specifically as southern Minnesota becomes more diverse, food pantries should reflect those communities, Esqueda said.
“As the diversity is changing, as it’s increasing, we have to make changes to our food shelf. You just can’t provide food to make a hot dish right now. You have to provide food to make other meals, too,” she said.
Culturally relevant food is a means of keeping culture throughout generations, especially among immigrants and refugees.
“I think about my mom and what it means to have grown up with cultural foods and the ability to share some of that now with my own children,” Tran said.
Those experiencing poverty have less ability to make those foods because food pantries weren’t built with them in mind.
“I want us to normalize culturally specific foods in food shelves. I don’t want us to only have them because ‘they were available today,’ but I want us to have them because this is what our clients are eating. We should not be providing something that they don’t want,” Esqueda said. “To me, ending food insecurity or reducing that rate, it’s not just providing someone a box of groceries and saying, ‘Here is your food, you’re good to go.’ It’s providing them with food that they’re actually going to consume.”