Fare For All: Affordable Healthy Oasis In A Food Desert
By: Paige Elliott, Freelance Community Journalist
“Everyone deserves healthy food where they live or where they can get to it.” That’s the basic idea behind Fare For All (FFA), according to Scott Weatherhead, the nonprofit’s program manager.
The program began as Fare Share in 1986, part of a nationwide network of Cooperative Food Purchasing programs. Now under the hunger relief organization The Food Group (formerly Emergency Foodshelf Network), FFA specializes in offering affordable fresh produce and frozen meat to communities of need.
Using a cooperative food purchasing model that utilizes bulk buying power, FFA purchases produce and meat in large quantities at wholesale prices, enabling the organization to pass along to the consumer discounts of up to 40 percent off typical store prices.
“People often ask, ‘How can you sell your stuff so cheap?’” said Weatherhead. “Well, it’s simple. We have something that a lot of places don’t have. We have a large warehouse; we have huge freezers and we have large trucks. So we buy in bulk. We buy from a lot of Minnesota companies… We are buying the same packages that the grocery stores are, and the more food that we buy, the lower our costs.
“When I first came here, we were buying 5,000 pounds of chicken at a time. Now we’re buying 15,000 pounds because we’re selling more. Because of that, for five years, our prices have not gone up and our packages are bigger and better than they were five years ago. The difference between what we pay and what we sell it for is mostly just to cover transportation costs to get out to some of these areas.”
“What if we made the good food affordable?”
FFA has 31 sites in the Greater Twin Cities metro area where food packages are distributed once a month for two hours. The offerings include a $25 mega-meat pack with a variety of seven to nine meat items; an $11 mini-pack with four meat items; a $10 produce pack consisting of 15 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables; and a combo pack with a mix of fresh produce and meat for $20.
FFA offers “hot buys” of popular items at each site. In January, for example, the hot buy will be a five-pound package of boneless chicken breast tenderloins for $8; in March, an Easter brunch box; and in the summer, a grill box with burgers, steaks and other meat that can be grilled. Also, warehouse sales are held every other Monday in New Hope. At this location, items are sold individually as well as in packages.
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Weatherhead shared the reasoning behind the choice of food offerings: “If you notice, our food is fruits and vegetables and frozen meats — not canned goods. When you go to a store, the two most costly things that you’ll see in the store are fruits and vegetables and frozen meats.”
He went on to note how unhealthy processed foods (like chips and cookies) are often much cheaper. “A lot of people can only afford so much and want to get as much as they can for as little as possible. I understand that. So at FFA, we said, instead of buying cookies and crackers because they are cheap, what if we made the good food affordable? So, instead of two or three bags of potato chips for $5, what if they can get a produce pack — enough for the whole month — for $10?”
He added, “The one thing we struggle with a little bit is when people say they want organic food. Organic food costs more. So there’s no way we can buy organic food in bulk and get it to them at a $10 price.” Depending on the season, the produce is either locally grown or sent from all over the country, according to the website.
There are no limits for packages, and all forms of payment, including EBT cards, are accepted except for personal checks. Participants are not required to prepay or preorder, and unlike many other discount food programs, there are no income qualifications or restrictions.
Also, site volunteers bring the groceries to the cars for shoppers and unload the items. Weatherhead likened the experience to the old “full-service filling stations” from back in the day.
How are distributions sites chosen? “We try to find need areas,” said Weatherhead. “There’s North Minneapolis and two or three sites in St. Paul. We find a place that is visible, and where food is needed, where people need some help.
“I can’t tell you that there’s one thing we look at,” continued Weatherhead. “We do look at areas of poverty. But that’s just one aspect. We also look at population… There are cities like Madelia and St. James that are almost food deserts, so they have to travel a long way to get food.
“We try to put our sites in areas that need more food access. And then, if we ever get into a situation where we see stores like Aldi and Hy-Vee opening sites really close to some of our areas, we may consider moving out of that area and moving into another area that doesn’t have the same food access.”
Weatherhead noted that the December 14 food distribution at Hallie Q. Brown in St. Paul reported its biggest sales ever. The site completely ran out of the popular $30 holiday packs.
The continued success of the organization is noteworthy considering the nonprofit doesn’t have an advertising budget. Said Weatherhead, “We never had this much business ever and it’s all word-of-mouth.
“We made a decision several years ago that we would not advertise. We want to put our money into food, not advertising. And we’re at a high right now. We tell people, if you like the program please tell somebody else, and that’s what they’re doing, and that’s why we’ve become big.”
In addition to word-of-mouth, FFA relies on agencies, organizations like the United Way, and various community food shelves to help share information about the food distributions.
Cathy Patterson, a new FFA participant, was pleased with her first shopping experience. “It was great,” said Patterson of the food distribution site at a community center in Burnsville. “It was very organized. The staff was very welcoming and helpful.”
Because of a disability, Patterson, a St. Paul resident, works part-time and utilizes food shelves to help supplement her groceries. An FFA sign posted at a local food shelf caught her eye. “I’d definitely continue to see what they have to offer and see what discounts they have” in the future, said Patterson.
Weatherhead has found the work at Fare For All to be most rewarding. “I’ve been here for five years. I worked at Wells Fargo for 23 years. I took this as my retirement job, and it went from not working many hours to being the program manager.
“And I tell you, I love this! It’s just such a fantastic program. It’s one of those ‘feel good’ programs for everybody; that’s how I describe it. It’s a ‘people helping people’ program. You can’t help but like being a part of it.”
If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer for Fare For All, visit https://fareforall.org/get-involved. To find a food distribution site near you, go to https://fareforall.org/find-a-site or call 763-450-3880.
If you are interested in bringing Fare For All to your community, contact Scott Weatherhead at 763-450-4212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paige Elliott welcomes reader responses to email@example.com