Area food shelves looking for donations, volunteers

Under the current COVID-19 pandemic, area charities are preparing to help where they can.

The need for food and assistance will likely increase as reports of infection rise.

“The plan is to stay open and provide food as long as we can,” The Open Door Executive Director Jason Viana said. “We’re trying to figure out how to help as many people as we can without making things worse.”

The Open Door food shelf is transitioning its mobile sites into a pre-packed food model to limit personal interactions.

“The whole point is to have less people touch things,” Viana said.

Jeff Mortensen, CEO of 360 Communities, said they’re staking steps to reduce social contact along with vigorously cleaning workspaces, washing hands and wearing gloves.

All five 360 Communities food shelves in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Farmington, Lakeville, and Rosemount have shifted to pre-pack models for pick up.

“We’ll do the packing and set it outside for them, or load it if they need help,” Mortensen said.

Pickups should be arranged ahead of time, but otherwise the buildings are closed to the public.

Charities could use a little extra help under the circumstances.

Many of The Open Door’s current volunteers are older or part of the vulnerable population.

“If you’re young and healthy, and you’re not in a high-risk category, we can certainly put you to work,” Viana said.

Mortensen said 360 Communities has undertaken several measures to ensure the safety of their volunteers.

Another way for residents to help is financial donations.

The Open Door Food Pantry canceled its annual Empty Bowls event on March 19, which was expected to raise approximately $30,000.

The Empty Bowls was strategically scheduled during a time when food shelves typically face a financial shortfall.

“There’s always such a concentration of generosity at the end of the year during the holidays,” Viana said. “But, honestly, there’s no difference month to month. We have a constant demand throughout the year.”

This is the time of the year when all those holiday donations are staring to thin.

Financial donations also offer more flexibility and help with operations.

Through Second Harvest, food shelves can get more food for their dollar than at the grocery store.

But, they’ll still welcome food donations, Mortensen said.

Due to switching to “modified choice” where The Open Door takes orders and pack the food for the clients, they need more paper bag donations.

The Open Door is also starting its summer Mobile Lunch Box program early with area school districts.

The mobile food pantry will visit low income neighborhoods and schools to help fill the gap now that schools are closed.

“We’ll put as much food in their hands as we can at one time,” Viana said. “These are two meals per day that a lot of them are going to miss them otherwise with the schools closed.”

While Dakota County may seem relatively affluent, there are several pockets of poverty, he said.

“Poverty in the suburbs is a challenge,” Viana said. “Now (District) 196 does a great job and they’re trying to change this, but it’s No. 1 in the state for the number of missed meals during the summer. It doesn’t mean that (District) 196 has the most kids in need in the state. It means of the kids that have a need, we do the worst job of meeting that need.”

He said the suburbs often don’t have the infrastructure to support poverty.

“The variety of income skews the numbers,” Viana said. “There’s no support because the area looks affluent, so the math doesn’t work. Poverty comes in little pockets. It’s not one neighborhood.”

Family support staff at 360 Communities is hard at work even though schools are closed.

“Those family support workers are proactively reaching out to families they’re connected with, and helping them with access to food and connecting them with resources,” Mortensen said. “Whether it’s emotional support or helping them with e-learning, we’re trying to get them that extra help.”

Staff at 360 Communities will continue to help clients via phone or online.

“For many individuals, there’s a gap,” Mortensen said. “People don’t always have the same access to technology. We’re trying to reduce barriers for families and help them plan for a new normal.”

The domestic and sexual violence shelters that 360 Communities operates will continue be open but will limit non-essential social exposure.

“They’re considered essential services,” Mortensen said. “Support staff will still be doing the work.”

They’re also preparing for the unexpected.

“There’s no real playbook to managing this type of situation,” Viana said. “It’s challenging for everybody. We’re going to establish a new normal in the next two, three weeks, and we’ll get through.”

But the community has stepped up. Mortensen said they’ve already experience an influx of people asking how to help.

“It warms my heart to see the goodwill that surrounds us in the community,” Mortensen said. “People are always looking for ways to best help. Right now the two main things: it’s about donations and if you’re in that low-risk category, think about volunteering.”

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