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Westonka Food Shelf partnered with area churches this summer to host a series of monthly farmer’s markets. The markets were about creating easier access to nutritious foods—a big part of health equity. Pictured here, from left, are Pastor Loren Davis of Good Shepherd, Pastor Peter Richards of Our Lady of the Lake, WFS executive director Michelle Bottenfield, WFS volunteer Dave Wietecha, WFS board member Michelle Repp, Chris Naylor of Westwood Community Church, Pastor Andrew Snead of River Valley Church and Pastor Jim Beard of Bethel United Methodist. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer)

Each of the markets was bringing in more people and sending out more food than the ones that came before it. They were no-questions-asked events that ensured nutrient-dense foods could make it to the table of anyone who needed it.

Westonka Food Shelf had already stepped up its outreach before the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe early last year, but that outreach found new partnerships this summer when the food shelf linked up with area churches to promote its project of health equity through its monthly farmer’s markets and a buddy run/walk 5K.

“Food shelf patrons across the nation experience chronic disease at significantly higher rates than the general population,” said Michelle Repp, board member at WFS. The topic of food equity—that everyone has a fair opportunity for a healthy life and equitable access to the means of pursuing it—has been Repp’s forte and the food shelf’s newest direction.

The USDA reported in 2017 that “for adults in households with very low food security, the relative probability of chronic disease increases dramatically.” Hypertension, diabetes and arthritis were all linked to food insecurity.

Easier access to nutritious foods was something that Westonka Food Shelf could actively provide, but it took some creative thinking on the part of board members and executive director Michelle Bottenfield to make it happen.

In its 51-year history, Westonka Food Shelf has changed from what one volunteer described as having a dull, almost basement look to it to being now almost a miniature version of a grocery store—brightly colored fruit and vegetable images hang in the front, above bins stocked always with a variety of fresh produce.

But that image of a cheerless basement still informs many people’s perceptions of what a food shelf is, and lot of those who come by to learn about the food shelf or to volunteer are surprised by what they find, said WFS volunteer Dave Wietecha.

Providing better access to food when that perception is still there meant having to make a bigger footprint: instead of waiting for people to come to the food shelf, the food shelf would make itself known to the people, and it would do so at a time when the need for food assistance is becoming more widespread.

In Westonka, the food shelf had distributed a record 820,000 pounds of food last year. Already this year, through only October and with the busiest months still ahead, the food shelf has given out more than 700,000 pounds of food.

“I kind of thought last year we were high and this year we would be a little bit lower or come in right around the same number, but it’s still considerably higher than in 2019,” said Bottenfield, who said she anticipated that figure reaching 1 million pounds by end of the year.

“I really believe that that huge increase in September, when all the food support services were discontinued—I think that’s what it is,” she added “I don’t have all the answers, but that’s what I’m thinking.”

Supports like the pandemic-induced moratorium on evictions, had began to lift in July this year. At the same time, WFS began serving more areas this year after the Maple Plain food shelf closed in 2020.

Bottenfield said that the need for food assistance has also in recent years moved beyond affecting those in lower income brackets and has crept into middle class households, too.

Nearly 85 percent of WFS patrons come to the food shelf for 100 percent of their groceries and of these patrons, 65 percent are working full-time jobs. “I think that’s a statistic people don’t understand: that people are working fulltime but still can’t make ends meet,” said Bottenfield. “I just think that more and more of our middle class is struggling.”

WFS’ visibility heightened this summer at each of its farmer’s markets and with the willingness by local churches Our Lady of the Lake, Bethel, Good Shepherd and River Valley to host them. Chanhassen’s Westwood Community Church—which is opening a campus here in Westonka early next year—also supplied volunteers and gardeners who gave their green thumbs to the community garden at Bethel and raised some of the produce for these markets.

And that visibility hit the radar of new donor Minnwest Bank, whose location at 101 and 7 made a donation after seeing the initiative taken on by those at WFS and said it was a unique way to promote access to food.

Said Bottenfield, the push for health equity isn’t over. There’s more in the works, she said.

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