In August of 2021, in the midst of COVID-19 challenges, Houston Community Food Shelf serving the city of Houston and surrounding communities in Houston County, carefully considered the opportunity for funding provided by Channel One Regional Food Bank: they saw the need to offer an enhanced shopping experience for their clients, but as a small, volunteer-run food shelf they needed more support. They had a vision—to increase food access and move back to choice shopping for those frequenting their space—and through the Food System Transformation project, that vision moved toward becoming a reality.

Houston County is one of six southeastern Minnesota counties that participated in co-design, a process facilitated by the University of Minnesota  with funding and vision from Channel One Regional Food Bank and built precisely for challenges like food insecurity. This human-centered, adaptive approach to problem solving taps into the passion, energy and insights of individuals who would otherwise be left out of the discussion—the ones most directly impacted. It’s a creative and cost-effective community engagement model that shifts the paradigm away from traditional decision-makers to those who have the most at stake. And that makes perfect sense.

Using the learnings from the co-design process and with the support of Channel One Regional Food Bank and FFEN, the Houston Community Food Shelf was able to identify its most pressing goals—to increase the dignity of their shoppers and provide them with an autonomous, choice by category shopping experience. With more than 40 hours of consulting time by FFEN staff and volunteers, and $20,000 in Food Systems Transformation (FST) funding from Channel One Food Bank, those dreams took shape. 

Houston’s new produce tables are now a highlight; consistently well-stocked with a variety of fresh produce, they are the first stop on their visitors’ shopping agendas. Glass door coolers and freezers provide sleek, efficient and accessible shopping. And new flooring is a subtle, but important, final touch that has enhanced shoppers’ experience literally top to bottom. In addition to the physical transformation of the space, Houston has now extended its open hours by two hours per week and increased shopping frequency to four times per month, up from just once per month. All these small changes have added up to big impacts for shoppers, reflected in an internal assessment of shopper experience. And perhaps even more significant, these boosts to efficiency and access have actually led to a decrease of 19% in costs per individual served because patrons are focused on selecting only what they need during their shopping trip, not anticipating what they might need for several weeks to come. 

Under the extraordinary vision, leadership and care of volunteer Laurie LeGrande, along with a Board of Directors, Houston has not only been transformed into a beautiful and welcoming space, but it has been positioned well for sustainability into the future. LeGrande’s tenacity and vision keep the operation evolving, with extended Saturday hours and incentives like reusable shopping bags on the horizon. And she could not be more appreciative of FFEN’s support along the way. She is overcome with gratitude for all that the food shelf has become and how it has positively benefited her community. LeGrande says of the amazing outcome, “I love these people and it brings me such joy to see them so happy.”

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