As COVID-19 impacted communities and families earlier this year, nonprofit organizations struggled to find ways to best help those in need. People across Minnesota were struggling to make ends meet as they weathered Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order and ensuing business shutdowns. More than ever, organizations such as the New Ulm Emergency Food Shelf were a critical resource—but getting food to people was a challenge when so many couldn’t even come to the food shelf’s location.
Brad Kirk, the New Ulm Emergency Food Shelf’s executive director, started thinking creatively. Bolstered by community support and countless volunteers, the Food Shelf is ready to hit the road with its newest program: The New Ulm Mobile Food Shelf.
For some time, Kirk had been mulling how to bring aid to those who needed it but were unable to seek it out. As more and more people struggled during the pandemic, this seemed like a good time to set the idea in motion.
“I’ve seen many cases where workers come down and get food for people because they don’t have transportation,” Kirk said.
He was also aware that some seniors in the community who qualified for aid from the Food Shelf were often unable to leave home or were uncomfortable doing so, particularly because of the pandemic.
I’ve seen many cases where workers come down and get food for people because they don’t have transportation.Brad Kirk
Over the summer, Kirk applied for a grant from the CARE Act to begin a mobile food shelf. As soon as the grant was approved, the food shelf team swung into action. Kirk purchased a trailer online that he thought would suit their needs well. Originally, they expected it to arrive 45 days after the sale, but, due to COVID-19-related delays, they finally received it after 90 days of waiting.
Slowed but undaunted, Kirk and his volunteers set to work prepping the inside of the trailer. The inside shelving had to be specially designed to prevent foodstuffs from falling off the racks while en route to delivery sites. New Ulm’s Sid’s Signs designed the outside graphics and donated part of the funds to put them on the trailer. The team also recruited volunteers to cover the extra man hours needed for the deliveries.
“We figure it’s going to take 30-35 volunteer hours,” Kirk said. “It’s not just getting the food to them; it’s planning the labor.”
As a member of the New Ulm Lions Club, Kirk turned to his fellow Lions to request volunteers. Lions’ Membership Director Keith Richter said that supporting the Mobile Food Shelf is an excellent way to live out the club’s mission of empowering volunteers to serve their communities. Eight club members were present at the New Ulm Lions Club’s first packing event for the Mobile Food Shelf.
We figure it’s going to take 30-35 volunteer hours. It’s not just getting the food to them; it’s planning the labor.Brad Kirk
“Right now, we’re trying to get all 60 members involved,” Richter said.
The Mobile Food Shelf will work a little like an order pick-up service at a supermarket or retailer. The New Ulm Emergency Food Shelf’s website has a link to the Mobile Food Shelf that allows individuals to apply for the Mobile Food Shelf’s program. Once they have been approved, program members can “shop” the Food Shelf’s site to request specific items. Volunteers will then find and pack the items, load them into the trailer, and deliver them directly.
Kirk said that thanks to the CARE Act and a generous community, the Food Shelf will be able to fulfill most orders.
“Most people want easy and quick-to-eat microwave items,” said Kirk. “Canned items, produce and meat are always requested, and more and more are starting to lean toward fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and dairy too.”
Starting Nov. 12, the Mobile Food Shelf will begin making deliveries once a week to three low-income apartment complexes. Kirk said that 20 people are currently signed up for it.
“I was expecting five or ten, but we got 20, so that’s good!” he said.
Kirk said that he expects more requests will be added to the list once the Mobile Food Shelf gets fully underway. In December, the Food Shelf will add three more apartment complexes to its delivery route and begin dropping food off to program members in Hanska and Lafayette.
In order to allow residents to receive the Mobile Food Shelf’s services, the apartments’ managers have to be willing to collect the distribution request forms and mail them in once a month, as well as provide a clear, snow-free space for the trailer to park.
If we serve one person, it’s worth it. That’s one less person who is going to be hungry.Brad Kirk
“I tell people, if your apartment complex is reluctant to do it, you need to talk to them,” Kirk said. “Tell them what your needs are, and maybe they’ll do it then.”
Requirements to participate in the program are mostly income-driven and are designed to be as inclusive as possible.
“Basically, if you need food and you know it, you qualify,” Kirk said.
The New Ulm Emergency Food Shelf has been receiving positive feedback regarding their mobile program. Kirk said that his greatest hope is that this extension of the Food Shelf will reach those who might otherwise have gone without basic necessities.
“If we serve one person, it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s one less person who is going to be hungry.”