Food shelf partners double as FFEN's volunteer program grows

At the beginning of 2020, FFEN planned to make significant changes to how we support food shelves. The needs of Minnesota food shelves were changing, and we were determined to be an organization that leaves no room for these crucial community resources to be left lacking. In the following months, through our staff and volunteer program’s growth, we’ve doubled the number of food shelves we’ve been able to engage and support.

Jess Johnson, FFEN Program Impact Manager

“We want to offer a wide spectrum of services, resources, and recommendations that we can bring to the table," Jess Johnson, Program Impact Manager at FFEN. "Really being a collaborator and a partner -- not having a ‘This is how you need to do this’ kind of approach.”

Transition Plans

When Jess Johnson started working with FFEN in March of this year, there were two primary volunteer roles: project managers and data analysts. Project managers are in the field, providing direct consultations to food shelves. Data analysts prepare a Food Sourcing Analysis for each of our food shelf partners, allowing for comparisons between the cost of specific goods to the importance of those goods to their food shelf clients. This group of experts was supporting a rapidly growing portfolio of food shelf partners.

"When I came on board, part of my role was to expand and formalize our volunteer program because the needs of food shelves were surpassing the roles we had," Jess said. "Formalizing the program is important for scalability. We also wanted to expand the expertise areas that we could provide service for to food shelves."

Through conversations with Minnesota food shelf managers, FFEN's team narrowed down specific volunteer roles that align with our expanded goals and started recruitment plans within a few months. Two AmeriCorps VISTA's were also added to the team, working to develop the volunteer program and coordinate community outreach efforts. Jess credits a significant part of these changes to FFEN's Executive Director, Kate Burggraff.

"Kate's ability to help the Board transition into a growth strategy has propelled the organization forward to expand and hone in on what is our niche," Jess said. "She's a great vision-caster with the ability to get people excited and energized about the vision."

New Volunteer Roles

Our volunteers across the country invest their efforts in MN food shelves.

A few new roles were created to help specifically with FFEN's operations, supporting the behind the scenes work of a growing non-profit. But most positions were created to engage directly with Minnesota food shelves.

"We do a lot of layout and design in food shelf spaces, and our portfolio is getting to the size where it's helpful to have architect volunteers who can turn stuff around faster and use tools and resources that aren't available to us," Jess said. "We now have four experienced architect volunteers."

Most often, only hand-drawn maps and diagrams were available before FFEN's new architects joined the team. Although those outlines were drawn by team members with enough experience to envision an accurate layout quickly, to-scale drawings allow for easier equipment placement when designing a space. Food shelves can also present these to-scale diagrams to their boards and share them during Minnesota community listening sessions to those considering a new food shelf in their area.

It's common for food shelves to hear about grant opportunities but not have the capacity to write the applications. Often, food shelves are almost entirely volunteer-run, which means they may take a humbler approach in seeking potential resources and may be unaware of how to use those resources efficiently.

To resolve this issue, FFEN's grant application support services also evolved this year by adding three grant writing volunteers and a change in approach.

"We're switching to a more proactive model," Jess explained. "In addition to responding when a food shelf needs support with applying to grants, we're going out and finding the grant opportunities so we can present them to the food shelves and say, 'Here is a funding opportunity, are you interested and can we help you apply?'"

Looking Ahead

With 2021 right around the corner, the FFEN team is already envisioning more volunteer program growth. Minnesota food shelves often need help accessing resources and then support to follow-through.

"Who knows what January will bring, but we're busy getting ready," Jess said. "The cool thing is that we're an organization that is adaptable and flexible. And with the guiding principle that we are here to help food shelves, I think we'll always be able to shift pretty quickly."

The FFEN volunteer team is growing, and we would love to have you join us! If you are interested in volunteering with us, visit