Regional food bank endures pandemic with help from community, farmers

Channel One Regional Food Bank is the largest hunger relief organization in southeast Minnesota, and its operation wouldn't be what it is today without the help it gets from farmers.

Channel One truck
A Channel One food truck delivers food in Minnesota. (Contributed by Channel One)

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Thanks to farmers and community support, the Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester is going to make it through the pandemic. That means the clientele that it serves close to 8 million annual meals to will also endure.

Channel One, a member of Feeding America, has over 58,000 individuals in its service region who are considered food insecure, according to its website. The food bank serves 13 counties in southeast Minnesota and La Crosse County in Wisconsin, making it the largest hunger relief organization in southeast Minnesota.

Jessica Sund, director of development and communications for Channel One, said a simple way to understand the difference between a food shelf and a food bank is viewing food shelves as grocery stores and food banks as the suppliers to those stores.

"Basically the food shelf gets the food directly to the people," said Sund. "And the food banks are the warehouse and hubs, to source, purchase, handle and repack the food and work with partner shelves to distribute."

She said along with operating its own food shelf, the organization helps operate hundreds of satellite food shelves in the region it serves.


Feeding the demand

In the first month of the pandemic, Sund said that Channel One pretty much doubled its distribution. The focus of ramping up production was combined with ensuring the satellite food shelf locations — many in rural areas, stayed open.

"A lot of the food shelves we support are operating on such a bare bones crew, and have maybe one person working there and a couple volunteers," Sund said. "The boxes have really helped them out, and kept them from having to shut their doors."

The people who can't make it to a food shelf are still supplied food through Channel One's mobile pantries, which delivers food to their doors.

Sund described the Channel One truck drivers as "always having their feet on the ground," especially during this time of great need by some families.

"They are the ones directly interacting with farmers, the food shelves and the stores donating food," said Sund of the drivers. "They hear and see a lot."

The farms behind the food

Sund said that Channel One has about six farms they work with consistently throughout the year, but also get produce donations from individual growers and hobby farms.

"Donations of produce is so essential, and (partner farms) bring produce almost every day for us," Sund said. "It helps us to get food from the farm to our clients quickly, and we really rely on them."

Last year, the food bank distributed 1.7 million pounds of produce throughout the 14 counties it serves.


"We're looking to increase that this year to 3 million pounds," she said. "Just not possible without the farmers that help us do that.

Firefly Berries in northeast Rochester, ran by husband and wife Dean and Tonya Sanner, is one of the farms that partners with Channel One. Firefly Berries specializes in pick-your-own strawberries and Concord grapes.

Dean Sanner said their partnership with Channel One began around five years ago, not long after they started the operation.

"We tend to have a lot of extra food at the tail end of our harvest, of fresh fruit," Sanner said. "So we thought it'd be a great idea to let people share in the experience of having it."

He said they donate more grapes than strawberries because they have more grapes than there's a demand for.

"It's a perfect outlet so that food doesn't go to waste," he said.

Without farmers, Channel One wouldn't be able to supply its clients with the well-balanced diet it does now.

"Whether we're purchasing product from them or whether they are donating — they are essential," Sund said.


Farmers get reimbursement from the state for their donations, but Sund said that's not why farmers continue partnerships with them.

"When they can see their produce come to us, and how we're distributing it, I know it makes them feel good," said Sund. "It's not just about the reimbursement, they are really loving they can get food out to the community they live in."

Channel One bank
Volunteers work to sort and package food in the Channel One Food Bank in Rochester. The food bank is a member of Feeding America and is the largest hunger relief organization in southeast Minnesota. (Contributed by Channel One)

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