New Leadership Team Focuses on Outreach as Food Shelf Goes Through Troubled Times | New
As we’ve been through tough times over the past year – locally, regionally and beyond – local food shelves have been a staple for many individuals and families. As we emerge from the COVID-19 period, these shelves are reassessing their situation and determining what to expect.
In St. Peter, a new and young management team is trying to build a shelf for the future. Andie Kukacka, 23, from the Montgomery / New Prague area and a Gustavus graduate, took over the management of the St. Peter Area Food Shelf in August 2020. Almost a year after taking office, Kukacka has could not open the doors to the shelf, serve only curbside in order to protect both clients and volunteers, many of whom are elderly.
But he has visions of eventually opening those doors and more.
“We are currently deploying demographic surveys, and this is the first time that we are doing so,” Kukacka said. “We ask the race of the people; it’s not something we would normally ask for, but as this community becomes more diverse, I think it’s absolutely necessary to know who served. We also ask them what they think of our services: how they prefer to get their food; to what extent do they have access to food; any disability they may have. We will complete these surveys in early August. We will decide from there whether to reach out with mobilized outreach efforts, whether to extend the hours and open up.
Already, Kukacka has made some changes to the local board, which covers the area of the St. Peter’s School District, as well as Cleveland, Nicollet and to the Blue Earth and Sibley County borders.
The biggest change was the addition of two translators, both working part-time, the same as Kukacka. Reem Ibrahim, 23, helps the local Somali community, which continues to grow locally, and Gisel Murillo, helps the local Hispanic community, which has long been present in the St. Peter’s area.
“My family has been using the food aisle for a few years and when I saw this opportunity to be a translator, I jumped on it,” Ibrahim said. “I accepted the job because I noticed that some things needed to be changed and updated in some way. It was just very difficult for, like my mother, to communicate with some of the volunteers because of the language barrier. So when I saw that I could bridge that gap and be a mediator, I wanted the job.
Before making any changes and recruiting new employees, Kukacka had to find her own place. Arrived near the peak of the pandemic, he had a lot to discover. He also had to come back to his impatience very early on.
“I found that the first six months were spent on a lot of my training and assessing the needs of the community and how to interact,” he said. “It was interesting at first, because I feel like I’m in a wishful thinking place. A lot of customers wanted to come shopping, but a lot of the volunteers thought it was too risky. So when the COVID peaks came in the fall, I had to realize and step back to see that I was truly wishful thinking. My volunteers are vulnerable and they are almost indispensable.
The Food Shelf has a constant number of volunteers, mostly over the age of 65, who were a particularly vulnerable population during the pandemic. And besides volunteers, many off the shelf customers were and are vulnerable, due to lack of access to health care and vaccines in some cases.
Another truth that Kukacka had to accept was that the numbers had been dropping since the start of the pandemic, and there was no obvious fix for it. They’re still down, in fact. Before COVID-19 hit the region in March 2020, the St. Peter Food Shelf might have expected more than 200, sometimes closer to 300, households served per month. The shelf currently serves approximately 90 to 100 households.
“This seems to be an ongoing problem for most Minnesota shelves,” Kukacka said. “We know there are people who need help because this is one of the worst recessions we’ve seen since the Great Recession. Something is wrong between the number of people who need help and the number of people using our services.
As the pandemic (hopefully) ends, the Food Shelf team is starting to do the work to make sure the shelf reaches everyone who needs it.
Kukacka has noticed that a number of families and individuals, who are fully eligible for Food Shelf support, do not realize the local shelf exists or do not think they are eligible to be served.
“There was a family whose house literally burned down, and they told us they didn’t know they were eligible because they received SNAP benefits,” Kukacka said. “There are just a lot of people who think they are not eligible or that they do not deserve our services.
The new requirements, instituted earlier this month, to be able to use a local food shelf are incomes at 300% of the federal poverty line or less for individuals and families. These figures are available on the St. Peter Area Food Shelf website. It is not necessary for customers to fill out any paperwork; they just need to verbally confirm their financial situation.
Beyond simply letting people know that the Food Shelf exists, the new team wants to spread the word to local people in communities of color.
“(Translators Ibrahim and Murillo) have focused a lot on community outreach, thus delivering print ads and word of mouth ads; also working with school district liaison officers – often they are already in contact with families through free and reduced meal programs, ”Kukacka said. “This work has therefore brought us many new clients. Our translators are there for families and individuals to speak in person, or they can speak by phone. They also translate our advertisements.
For Ibrahim, who hopes to become a paralegal, it is above all about helping his community.
“It’s like, ‘Why isn’t that important? “” She said of the job. “People need food, and there are only a limited number of ways to get food assistance, in addition to regular government benefits. I love being able to connect people, especially my own, to these amazing resources. “
Ibrahim also helped the Food Shelf to introduce halal meats, that is, the appropriate cuts according to the Islamic religion.
“It was just a conscious thing,” she said. “When my family goes shopping, we only keep eggs or fish, and I thought maybe more families would come if they knew there was halal meat. We’ve had a lot of great reviews on this.
Beyond expanding access and reaching more people, the Food Shelf also goes the extra mile to meet people where they are. While the service has been strictly curbside since the start of the pandemic, volunteers have visited people’s homes when needed. Everything you need to ensure that those in need of food are given food.
“We look forward to receiving feedback on our surveys and we want to remind people that our facility is open to anyone who is qualified to use it,” Kukacka said. “If they have any questions, just call and ask, and anyone in need, we’ll never turn down, as long as we have food on our shelves.”
Contact editor Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8579 or follow him on Twitter @EditorPhilipWeyhe. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.