Former chef JD Bell’s expertise lies in providing restaurants with kitchen equipment that meets their specific needs. But the staggering number of restaurant closures and an increase in demand for refrigeration from food shelves due to COVID-19 shifted his focus to hunger relief.
From 2013-2019, FFEN sourced 54 coolers and freezers from Horizon Equipment - the foodservice appliance supplier where Bell works - for installation at food shelves around the state. This year from March to October alone, we've sourced 38.
“People are just struggling to find out where they can get food, and I think that’s where a lot of these food shelves have really helped out,” Bell said. “That’s why everything has picked up. There are just so many families that have no way of putting food on the table.”
One of the food banks FFEN partners with is Second Harvest Heartland, which serves 59 Minnesota counties. Since the pandemic began, the food bank has delivered 30% more food to its food shelf partners. It’s also seen a 60% increase in the number of people served since March.
But a sharp increase in the number of food shelf clients does not only require more food -- more space to store that food is urgently needed.
“This year, we’ve sourced a significant number of coolers and freezers from JD and Horizon Equipment, particularly in response to COVID-19,” said Kate Burggraff, Executive Director of FFEN. “We’ve done this to ensure that food shelves have the cooler and freezer space they need to have fresh food available and to maximize that food stream.”
Layoffs, significant cuts to work hours, and school closures resulting from COVID-19 have placed heavy burdens on Minnesota families. According to a fall 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Education, an estimated 39,805 pre-K through grade 12 students enrolled in Minnesota public schools are approved to receive free and reduced-price school meals. Now that students cannot attend classes in-person, families need to provide those extra ten meals a week themselves.
These, among other coronavirus-related factors, explain the upsurge in food shelf clientele.
Food shelves have routinely requested support from FFEN to install commercial refrigeration over the years. Refrigeration has a significant, positive impact on food shelves by allowing them to stretch their budgets and expand the choices of food they offer.
“Without adequate refrigeration, local food shelves are not able to take advantage of the high-quality, low-cost or free fresh food that exists in the system,” said Carolyn Kohrs, a FFEN board member and volunteer in the field with food shelves. “Having adequate onsite refrigeration and freezer capacity allows food shelves to regularly source and distribute highly valued meats, dairy, eggs, and fresh produce to the families they serve. In addition to sourcing fresh food from food banks, free retail food rescue is possible and donated surplus produce from local farmers can be accepted.”
Bell has been working with FFEN since 2016. However, the partnership has never been so crucial for both sides as it is now.
“My sales are probably down about 5-7%, but I think that if I wouldn’t have had FFEN as a customer, my sales would probably be down close to 70 or 80%,” Bell said. “Around March, we actually laid off eight people, and we brought a couple of people back for a few months, but we got to a point where the industry just was still not recovering the way it should. Everything I’ve sold since March has been mostly refrigeration. I’ve only had one restaurant decide to open up.”
Although hunger relief organizations are not Bell’s typical clients, his reasons for working with FFEN stem from his own experiences with hunger as a child.
“When I was growing up, my dad was a truck driver, and my mom worked in a Catholic church; we never had a whole lot of money,” Bell shared. “Every meal was always eating whatever was on the table. We needed food shelves. There was a time I told my mom that if she gave me powdered milk one more time, I don’t think I would survive. Now I make sure that I have at least a gallon of milk in my refrigerator at all times. It’s just I remember the days that we couldn’t afford it.”
His mother later opened a desperately needed food shelf and secondhand store in her community, which she still runs to this day. And Bell’s memories of relying on food shelves as a child keep him motivated to provide the best service possible for FFEN and our food shelf partners.
“He really understands the importance of this work and is truly our amazing customer service person for sourcing all of these coolers and freezers,” Burggraff said. “He’s just really, truly working around the clock for us.”
There have been moments this year when Bell has stayed up past 3 a.m. to handle manufacturing issues. Other times, he’s ordered appliances from five different states when they weren’t available at a local warehouse.
“Those are the ones that I hold dear to me,” Bell said of FFEN and Minnesota’s food shelves. “I take care of them. That’s what my passion is.”
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