Not your average food truck – Innovation in Access to Healthy Food

2nd in our Innovations series, HandsOn Innovation – Be the change.
Collaborate. Innovate. Featuring the very best of Twin Cities innovations in community involvement.

What IS innovation?  I like to say that you know it when you see it.  It is the “Wow, why didn’t I think of that before?”  Or “Gee, of course that’s the perfect solution.”  Innovation can be evolutionary (continuous steps in the right direction) or revolutionary (something new; an exciting idea). Quite often innovation is the mixing of two worlds, two schools of thought, to arrive at a new solution. And often that innovation brings new energy to your cause, your mission, and helps you see the problem (now an opportunity!) in a new light.

One great example of this locally is the Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center’s (ELRC) Mobile Food Pantry.  When the leadership at ELRC realized that transportation was often a barrier to their nonprofit clients accessing food to feed their families, their creativity and innovation solved that problem – now instead of hungry people coming to the food, the food comes to the hungry people.

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The Mobile Pantry.  Photo credit: Nancy Wester, ELRC.

Sharing innovative ideas and creative approaches across sectors spurs more innovation; indeed Cross-Pollination Propels Innovation™ to a greater degree than we sometimes consciously realize.  Sarah Schmidt, fresh food coordinator at Eagan & Lakeville Resource Centers (ELRC), generously agreed to share her thoughts on innovation and The Mobile Pantry.


Susan Schuster (SS): “How did you or your team think of the Mobile Pantry idea? What was your thought process?”  

Sarah Schmidt (ELRC): “In early 2012, our staff sat down and had a conversation about the barriers our clients face in accessing food support. The majority of the missed appointments at our food shelf, The Pantry, are related to transportation: the bus was late, the client’s car broke down, or the client’s ride didn’t show up. We already had both morning, afternoon, and evening hours to work within our clients’ schedules. What we realized is that some people couldn’t get to us at all because of transportation. The Mobile Pantry helps to break down that barrier.”

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Inside the Mobile Pantry.  Photo credit: Nancy Wester, ELRC.


SS: “Why is this innovation important, and who are you serving?” 

ELRC: “The Eagan & Lakeville Resource Center Pantries and Mobile Pantry are reaching more and more families and individuals in need. We are now providing healthy food access to over 1,300 households a month. Once a week, the Mobile Pantry brings healthy food support to families and individuals in the Apple Valley area and to students and their families at Inver Hills Community College. On June 6, 2013, we started bringing food support to Dakota County Technical College’s students. We also partner with Independent School District (ISD) 191 to bring fresh, healthy foods to homeless or struggling high school students.”

Increased collaborative learning

SS: “How has this innovation impacted or energized your mission?”
“Our mission is to eliminate hunger in Dakota County, and The Mobile Pantry is another step toward that goal. The thought process around the creation and implementation of The Mobile Pantry has pushed our creative boundaries. We have reevaluated our intake process for The Mobile Pantry, looking at alternative ways to provide resources and information to our clients. We partner with the counseling centers at our community college sites, training the counselors on staff as Family Advocates who can provide resource and referral to our clients. We have also partnered with other organizations and business, studying their business models to increase collaborative learning. We studied Colborn’s Delivers, Coca-Cola, and other food shelves around the country to maximize the impact of The Mobile Pantry.”

Involve those you serve 

SS: “What would you say to encourage other innovators to meet needs creatively?”
“Think as close to the ground as possible. The best solutions are those created by the people who directly experience their impact. A group of 20+ households from the neighborhood advised the process of the Mobile Pantry at our new site. Their feedback showed that certain aspects of The Mobile Pantry needed to be changed to better fit their neighborhood.”


SS: “What are your sources of inspiration for being creative and innovative in your work?”
“The increase of local food trucks was definitely an inspiration for The Mobile Pantry. If restaurants can take food directly to people, why can’t food shelves? There are also impressive projects happening all around us. Urban Oasis, a food hub project in St. Paul, will focus on aggregating locally grown food to increase the farmer’s growing power. Northside Fresh, the Emergency Foodshelf Network, and the Minneapolis Healthy Foodshelf Network are all doing impressive work on increasing access to fresh, healthy foods.”

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ELRC community relations manager, Nancy Wester; operations manager. John Jaeger; fresh food coordinator, Sarah Schmidt; program manager, Mary Freeman; office manager, Kris Albright.

Photo Credit: Lisa Horn, executive director.

are thought leaders

ELRC is ranked a Top 15 MN Nonprofit for Access to Healthy Food by Philanthropedia  – a division of GuideStar.  Innovative organizations like ELRC are continually breaking new ground. Highlighted in a recent Pioneer Press article, ELRC is a thought leader in ensuring access to healthy food with their new Healthy Food PolicyLearn more or volunteer.

Your path?
Education is key.

Participating in a pilot innovation workshop co-hosted this year by IBM, Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) and HandsOn Twin Cities reinforced to me that to be innovative one must not only be constantly curious, but also enthusiastically pursue knowledge.  Even the definition of innovation is elusive.  From IBM : “By its very nature, innovation defies one definition or a single model. Successful innovators choose different paths based on their organization’s particular genetic structure–what we call “innovation archetypes,” a unique mix of cultural and operational traits. Understanding your company’s traits and comparing the examples of one or more relevant archetypes helps set you on your own innovation path.”

Innovation isn’t just the “a-ha” idea, although it can be.  Collaboration may involve some amount of chaos, but a structured process is crucial to implementation.  Without implementation, great ideas don’t go anywhere.  Build innovation into your culture and your strategic planning. How? Balanced scorecard is one method.  Read about how some companies use open innovation in their strategic planning. Or, be bold, throw out the traditional strategic plan and focus on adaptive strategy.  Each innovation path is unique – find yours!

Susan T. Schuster is a board member at Springboard for the Arts, a community relations consultant, creator and founder of the Twin Cities Corporate Giving Garden Network (the 2012 CVC-TC Innovation Award winner), and a passionate advocate for innovation in community involvement.

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