MORGAN, Minnesota — Minnesota farmers have been fueling the state's food banks long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thom Petersen, Minnesota's commissioner of agriculture, said he worked with connecting food banks with farmers even before he became commissioner.

"It's real easy to connect farmers, who grow the food, with those that need it," he said at Farmfest 2021.

He said it comes into play the most in food deserts in the state, where residents don't have access to grocery stores but where a lot of locally grown food is produced.

"Rural hunger is one thing that I've always really worked hard to address," he said.

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Rural hunger is also something that is difficult for people to understand sometimes, Petersen said.

"Because we're producing so much food, but because of economics and different things, it's not getting to people who need it," he said.

MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen and Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O'Toole at Farmfest on Wed. Aug. 4, 2021. Contributed photo
MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen and Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O'Toole at Farmfest on Wed. Aug. 4, 2021. Contributed photo
Allison O'Toole is the CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, the largest food bank in Minnesota. The food bank distributes millions of pounds of food throughout 41 counties in central and southwest Minnesota.

"Our agricultural partners are really critical, not only to the work we do every day, but to meeting our mission, which is to end hunger," said O'Toole.

She said farmers were critical to feeding hungry Minnesotans throughout the pandemic.

"Farmers were game changers for us," said O'Toole. "And we always have had active, and really engaged partnerships not only with the Department of Agriculture and Commissioner Peterson, and farmers across the state, but in the last 18 months, everyone's really stepped up."

She said farmers were the ones who stepped up the most, even while many of them lost markets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We couldn't do what we did in the last 18 months without the ag community here in Minnesota," she said. "When many of them were patient facing hardship themselves, they helped by providing food, produce, milk and protein, so we could help our hungry neighbors across across the state."

O'Toole said the state is still in a pandemic, and hunger is still a huge problem.

"One in 10 Minnesotans including one in seven Minnesotan kids still don't know where their next meal is coming from," said O'Toole. "So we have a ways to go."

O'Toole said that more than 60% of the food they provided over the last year was fresh.

"About 45 million pounds of that was fresh produce, and about 10 million pounds of that comes from Minnesota producers," she said. "And we're really proud of that."

Second Harvest Heartland works with the MDA and state producers on the Farm to Food Shelf Program. The program utilizes Minnesota-grown crops such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes, watermelons, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, squash and sweet corn — all of which must meet safety standards and be fit to eat.

Thom Petersen
Thom Petersen
Petersen said he's proud of what the program with Second Harvest Heartland has turned into.

"That was something that I worked hard on to help create and help move along," Petersen said. "Where the whole idea is taking food that's grown by farmers, who take it to a farmers market where it doesn't sell."

He said before the program existed, it was cheaper for farmers to compost the product rather than repackage the food and get it trucked somewhere. By offsetting a portion of harvesting, packaging and transportation costs, the program makes it doable for producers to donate surplus crops that would otherwise go unharvested or be discarded.

"We rescue that and the state subsidizes farmers so we can make sure that's connected our hungry neighbors," O'Toole said.

O'Toole also said that Second Harvest Heartland uses a milk grant through the state which provides nearly 300,000 gallons of fresh milk to those in need. Protein is the most asked-for and needed product at food shelves, said O'Toole.

"Minnesota farmers have not only provided millions of pounds of produce, but hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh milk," she said.

Over the pandemic, Second Harvest Heartland wrapped up work and opened its new facility located in Brooklyn Park. The organization turned an empty warehouse into a hunger-relief operation which includes large coolers and a larger fleet of trucks.

"We now have a temperature-controlled repacking unit, which is a game changer," said O'Toole of the new facility. "It means we can take bulk protein and and make sure it's safe, but also repack it into smaller quantities to provide the food shelves across our service area."

She said it Second Harvest Heartland is one of six food banks across the country which has such a unit.