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Watonwan County Food Shelf serves up healthy food and hope in former bowling alley

Culturally specific food items at the Watonwan County Food Shelf

Across Minnesota, food shelves are making bold moves to meet the growing needs of families in this time of pandemic and inflation. For two years, community champions from University of Minnesota Extension’s SNAP-Ed* program and La Convivencia Hispana partnered around a shared vision for a more vibrant and inclusive food shelf in Watonwan County. 

Their collaboration demonstrates how a community can come together to form powerful solutions to feed more families and create welcoming spaces for all.

Pandemic drove need for many to try food shelf

Watonwan County hosts the second highest population concentration of Latinx families in Minnesota. Manufacturing, food processing in particular, is the most common source of employment in the county. During the pandemic, families working in food processing plants were hit especially hard as COVID-19 spread quickly through the plants.

Families who previously did not know about or had never used the food shelf were finding out how to use these services, which were promoted in Spanish for the first time through a local emergency hotline.

A path toward change

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Watonwan County Food Shelf was on a path toward big changes. Beth Labenz, Extension SNAP-Ed educator,  joined the board early in the year and helped identify strategies to promote accessibility. The 600-foot space posed challenges in refrigeration and storage of perishable food items. Operating only 6 hours per week limited access for working families. 

Labenz and other members of the Watonwan County Food Partnership worked with Head Start families to find creative ways to distribute food to those in need through local school districts and by eliminating a referral system.  

In March 2020, the food shelf faced a rollercoaster of new challenges. Katherine Petty stepped into a new role as director, a volunteer position, and came together with partners such as La Convivencia Hispana and Watonwan County Human Services to determine how they would adapt to continue serving families through home deliveries and drive-thru distributions. 

The new home of the Watonwan County Food Shelf with SuperShelf signage

A new home

More families began to participate in these programs, and the food shelf was quickly running out of space and storage. Together, Petty and Labenz wrote and received grants from the state of Minnesota, the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), and Hunger Solutions to purchase a new home and equipment. 

After four bids, the Watonwan County Food Shelf closed on a new space: the former bowling alley in St. James. 

“Now with 6,000 square feet full of bright colors and fresh produce, the food shelf is known fondly around town as the ‘free grocery store,’” says Labenz. Evening hours, interpretation services and walking carts have also helped fuel an exponential increase in participation from area families. 

Julieta Vargas,  a community organizer with La Convivencia Hispana, says, "The community now knows how to access the food shelf and it is a welcoming place to shop for food because we are all working together."

The food shelf became a certified SuperShelf in April 2022. As food shelves across Minnesota continue to grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic and impact of inflation, Watonwan County offers a hopeful example of community-led change. 

*Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education


Allison Sandve, Extension news media manager, ajsandve@umn.edu, 612-626-4077 (office) or 651-492-0811 (mobile).
Contact Extension Communications at extnews@umn.edu.

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