By Anika Rychner
Director of Self-Sufficiency

She was 88, he was 92, and when the couple arrived for their food shelf appointment at the 360 Communities Burnsville Family Resource Center, they looked traumatized and defeated. Volunteer Archie MacPhee had seen this look before: They had never expected to be in this position. Archie knew that for many, it is exceptionally difficult to come to a food shelf for the first time and ask for help. He greeted this couple warmly and welcomed them as he would a guest in his own home.

Tears rolled down the husband’s face as his wife shared their story. Archie let them know that everyone goes through difficult times, and that 360 Communities is a neighbor with resources to share in times of need. As Archie explained the Burnsville Food Shelf shopping model, he began to walk them back to the food shelf to meet our volunteer shopping assistants. Before they reached the food shelf door, the man stopped Archie and said, “Hey bub, come here!” He dropped his cane on the floor and held out his arms.  Soon he was joined by his wife and they all shared a group hug.

“All I need is one of these stories every once in a while and it reminds me why the good Lord wants me here,” says a smiling Archie, “and every week I get one.” Archie says the move to a choice model food shelf, where people in need shop for their own food rather than pick up pre-packed bags of groceries, and the changes made in how people are greeted are big reasons why. “This model opens the door for 360 Communities to receive people with more grace, respect and dignity.”

360 Communities continually evaluates and improves its programs and services as a means to an important end: better serving those in need.  It was in this spirit, that over a year ago, we began a process of assessing our network of five food shelves and two family resource centers to see if we could find ways to serve more people more efficiently, more completely and with more dignity.

360 Communities Feed My Sheep Food Shelf at Messiah Lutheran Church is celebrating its 10th anniversary of serving the Lakeville community. Throughout that time, they have worked to improve service every year. This week, Feed My Sheep will become the second 360 Communities food shelf to transition to a choice model. In addition to this change, they have set up a community garden in Lakeville’s Sunny Acres neighborhood in an effort to increase the amount of fresh produce offered to families in need. Residents of Sunny Acres are growing their own healthy produce in the garden and now have the ability to shop for their groceries at the Feed My Sheep Food Shelf.

As a member of 360 Communities’ network of five food shelves, Feed My Sheep was able to see the choice model first put into service at the 360 Communities Burnsville Food Shelf last March. The results of this transition have been remarkable and have provided Feed My Sheep with a blueprint of best practices to follow. The Burnsville Food Shelf has served 25 percent more individuals in the few months since the change with healthier food options and resources to stabilize families.  During the same period we have been able to distribute 5,000 more pounds of food per month – another 25 percent increase.

The popularity of this model with our customers has been overwhelming and accounts for some of the increase in people served. But there are many important factors that have aligned to make this success a reality. These collaborations and partnerships in the community were critical for 360 Communities to make a greater impact in Burnsville:

• The Burnsville AM and Noon Rotaries secured nearly $7,000 in funds to purchase commercial freezers and refrigerators that give the Burnsville Food Shelf the capacity to store a greater volume of meat, dairy and produce.

• Our collaboration with Vineyard Community Services’ Fruit of the Vine Food Shelf in Burnsville has made it possible to accept a sizable weekly donation of food from Wal-Mart of Burnsville.  Fruit of the Vine has the capacity to pick up and deliver the produce, meat and dairy. The ability to leverage Vineyard Community Services’ core competency of food delivery has directly led to an increase of healthy food for the families we serve. For example, where we have received very little fresh produce in the past, we are now receiving an average of 900 pounds of fresh produce a week. And this healthy food is popular with our customers because when dollars are stretched, one is less likely to purchase more expensive items like fresh produce and meat at a grocery store.

• Our volunteers continue to contribute their time and energy in the spirit of caring for their neighbors. In fact, year over year between the months of April and June, we saw a 61 percent increase in the number of volunteers in Burnsville and a 46 percent increase in the total number of hours served.

The choice model has streamlined food delivery for our Burnsville Food Shelf. The change in the food shelf coincided with a change in the operation of the Burnsville Family Resource Center. We now have more time with customers at each food appointment to build relationships. In addition, we are piloting a new self-sufficiency project to better track outcomes, with the goal of supporting, following up, and impacting people’s long-term self-sufficiency. This system of tracking outcomes improves our ability to carry out our holistic approach, helping us target areas of need while providing people with goal-planning tools and support beyond food.

Throughout the 40-year history of 360 Communities, we have recognized that change is healthy, and more importantly, needed in order to meet the evolving needs of an ever-shifting population. With stretched resources, we are starting to leverage community partners to collaborate in new ways to serve more and to serve better.

But most importantly, we are continually strengthening our relationships with the people we serve. When people come to 360 Communities for help, they often feel like they are out of options. In Burnsville and in Lakeville, our food shelf customers are now experiencing more choice at a time in their lives when things feel out of control. And that is dignifying and helps them on the road to self-sufficiency.