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New program provides more produce to St. Paul Park food shelf

Friends in Need Food Shelf volunteer Gordon Peterson, of St. Paul Park, bags fresh produce provided through a new program called Fields to Families. In the background are Lee Miller (left) and Doug Voegeli, who are helping with the program. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 4
The vegetables provided to Friends in Need Food Shelf through the Fields to Families program are harvested and cleaned by Hmong farmers hours before they are delivered. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 4
With the Fields to Families program, the St. Paul Park food shelf now has produce coming from at least four sources during the growing season. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente3 / 4
Lee Miller inspects a bunch of collard greens, one of numerous vegetables made available through a program Miller is working to introduce at regional food shelves. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente4 / 4

Produce is plentiful this year at the Friends in Need Food Shelf.

A new program at the St. Paul Park food shelf is both offering a bountiful supply of fresh vegetables to the needy and providing business to area growers.

Each Monday morning a small group of Hmong farmers delivers hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables to Friends in Need. The produce is weighed -- last week it topped 500 pounds -- and the farmers are paid for their produce.

Then, on Tuesdays, volunteers display the produce and food shelf clients request what they would like; the vegetables are in addition to nonperishable items they receive. Produce portions are determined by family size and quantity available.

There is a variety of vegetables to choose from: lettuce, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, green onions, beans, collard greens, tomatoes and other garden crops.

This is the first year for the program at Friends in Need but it already has proven popular.

"It's a voracious appetite here," said Doug Voegeli, a Friends in Need volunteer who is helping with the program. "The clients here are real happy to see it."

The Hmong farmers belong to a church in east St. Paul. Lee Miller, a Stillwater resident who has volunteered at other food shelves, also is a member of the predominantly Hmong congregation. Miller said he saw how hard Hmong farmers work -- spending long hours planting, maintaining and harvesting vegetables by hand in gardens several acres in size. They work land along the Vermillion River in Dakota County and elsewhere around the Twin Cities region. They harvest at night, wearing helmets with lights so they can see as they prepare vegetables to be sold just hours later.

"These farmers are not well-off," Miller said. "They love to do it -- that's why they do it."

Miller wanted to help them sell their produce.

"The disconnect is they're trying to sell at farmers' markets, and many people can't get to farmers' markets," he said. So Miller launched Fields to Families which connects the Hmong farmers to four food shelves -- Friends in Need in St. Paul Park; a River Falls, Wis., food shelf; and two food shelves in St. Paul.

There is a misconception, Miller said, that food shelf clients won't take fresh produce because they only want to eat canned or boxed food.

"That's not true; they'll take it," he said, noting that even the collard greens are received enthusiastically.

Fields to Families is not the St. Paul Park food shelf's only produce source. Community gardens in the city of Newport and at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale also provide vegetables, in addition to grocery stores and Second Harvest Heartland. However, the Hmong farms tend to start earlier in the year so Fields to Families is making produce available to Friends in Need before it receives donated produce from the two community gardens, said Michelle Rageth, food shelf director. She said Friends in Need is thankful for the community gardens' produce and will continue to rely on it.

"This is to supplement what they're doing, not to replace it," she said.

While the program offers produce at a fraction of what it would cost in a grocery store, there is a cost. Rageth said during the peak growing season the bill will be about $2,500 a month. This year the food shelf and a volunteer are splitting the cost.

Program organizers are monitoring how well the program works. If it continues to be successful, they hope an area church will sponsor the program next year.

The food shelf is seeing about 200 client families a week and most are going home with fresh produce, Rageth said.

"I haven't seen anybody walk away and say they don't need it," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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