More space for doing good.
When Perry Petersen became the executive director of the White Bear Area Food Shelf four years ago, his ultimate dream was to work himself out of a job. But hunger in the east Metro hasn’t ramped down—not even close. “We went from having 14,000 visitors to the food shelf in 2019 to 33,000 visitors in 2022,” Petersen says. “The need has more than doubled.”
While some of that increase can be attributed to better access—the food shelf has worked hard to make itself more welcoming, more dignified and easier to get to—more families in the area are hungry. Much of that is due to rising costs everywhere: food, rent and transportation are all more expensive. “For people who are living paycheck to paycheck, the paycheck just doesn’t go as far,” Petersen says. In addition to food shelf users, who are chronically food insecure, there are also many neighbors who have hit a rough patch: job losses, job reductions, medical emergencies and so on. Petersen says long-term, systemic change is needed at the state and national level to truly fight food insecurity.
The food shelf was founded in 1977; after growing out of several locations, it moved into its current Whitaker Street location in the late ’90s. When the pandemic hit, staff and volunteers pivoted to a curbside pickup model, which has helped get more food to more neighbors. “Having people come inside is just not as efficient,” Petersen says.
But the downside is the missing human element. Neighbors aren’t able to chat with other shoppers and volunteers while they browse, and they’re not able to pick out their own food. “We want to offer freedom of choice,” says community resource coordinator Tracy Pierre. “People who have used the food shelf for years say this was their social time.”
A longtime plan to secure a second location is now a reality, and a new Community Market will open to neighbors in early 2024 at 2446 County Road F East, near Normandy Park Education Center. “It’s going to feel more like a retail space, to bring familiarity and dignity to our neighbors’ experience,” Petersen says. “They can walk in, shop and check out,” just like at a traditional grocery store. The staff has already minimized barriers whenever possible. “The food shelf is open to anyone, as often as needed,” Petersen says. “Food is a basic human right. It doesn’t matter where you live. There’s inequity when it comes to food access, period. There are food deserts in our own cities.”
The second location will also offer wraparound services, where neighbors can meet on site with experts on rental assistance, county benefits like WIC, adult enrichment classes from the school district and more. “There are many people in suburban Ramsey County who don’t have the ability to drive to [service centers] in downtown St. Paul,” Pierre says. “This gives them an opportunity to connect with services where they live.”
“We also really see this as a redistribution site for food in the community,” Petersen says. More than 40 percent of offerings at the White Bear Area Food Shelf are “rescues” from local grocery stores: fresh produce, overstocked deli items, meat and cheese, bakery and more. “There’s a lot of food that had historically gone to waste, and we’re getting it to people in a timely, safe manner, and with dignity.”
How can you get involved with the White Bear Area Food Shelf? Executive director Perry Petersen outlines its top needs:
- Financial Donations: “With a $1 donation, we can purchase $8 worth of food,” Petersen says. “People’s monetary donations go a long way.”
- Volunteering: “As we’ve expanded programs, we always have a need for volunteers. It’s more meaningful when people get to experience it and feel being part of the solution to hunger.”
- Product Donations: This holiday season, the food shelf especially needs items that are harder or more expensive to source: hygiene products, diapers, ingredients for baking like sugar and spices, culturally connected foods and “fun” items like kids’ cereal.