It would be easy to assume that food shelves (often known as food pantries outside of Minnesota) and food banks are one and the same, but they are actually two different (though connected) operations.

There are an estimated 375 food shelves in Minnesota. These food shelves serve a community’s hunger-relief needs directly, with volunteers and staff distributing food to clients on-site and in-person. This distribution is handled differently depending on the food shelf. Sometimes food items are packed up by volunteers beforehand (“pre-packed” system), and sometimes clients are able to pick the items they want off the shelves (“client-choice”  grocery store style). Sometimes it’s somewhere in between, with clients selecting certain items from a list before volunteers pack and deliver the items they’ve chosen. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed some of these offerings based on reducing contact between individuals and allowing for processes that ensure more privacy for clients.

Food shelves receive their food and supplies from a number of different sources including food “rescued” from restaurant and retail sources (food that can no longer be sold but is still safe to eat), donations from food drives, and corporate sponsors. But among the most significant sources for food shelves are food banks. Most food shelves spend $2,350 per month sourcing food from food banks and other wholesalers.

Food banks are large facilities that store massive quantities of food and household goods that they are then able to distribute to food shelves over a specific geographic area. They receive food from some of the same sources as food shelves though they are often geared more toward the collection and storage of large amounts of these items. Six of the food banks in Minnesota are affiliated with Feeding America (see map below) and one food bank, The Food Group, is operated independently.

Food banks and food shelves may be run by the same organization, or they may operate individually, forming relationships that fit their own models. Either way, both perform absolutely essential functions in the fight against food insecurity.

So where does FFEN fit into this system? FFEN works as a nimble and responsive third party, able to address the specific needs and unique challenges faced by other actors in the hunger-relief system. Its independence allows it to invest in novel solutions such as data tools and function as a kind of brain trust, gathering expertise from various fields and putting it at the disposal of different organizations as needed. It is FFEN’s mission to support the transformation and sustainability of hunger-relief organizations across Minnesota and provide essential support to the work of food shelves and food banks across the state.

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