Meeting the Need One Family at a Time

Client - Paola Family Header

November 5, 2018 By: Tina Mortimer Category: Hunger Stories

A family in crisis

In southern Minnesota, farm work was harsh and unpredictable for laborers like Paola’s husband, Joel. He might work 40 hours one week, and not at all the next. Paola worked part-time in a factory, yet with five kids at home, their paychecks barely covered rent, much less food and other necessities. One of Paola’s sons suffers from asthma while another lives with mental illness, and options for affordable health care were limited in their rural community. Then Joel was diagnosed with diabetes and a foot injury forced him to take time off. As much as they needed the money, Paola couldn’t continue to work with her family in crisis. Something had to change, and fast. 

Seven years ago, Paola and Joel packed up their things and moved their family to the Twin Cities in search of steadier work, better access to health care and a fresh start.

At first, life was good. They found a small house to rent on the east side of Saint Paul. Joel landed a steady job at a restaurant. Weekends he drove back down south to do farm work. However, with the higher cost of living in the city, they found themselves in the same predicament they were in before: struggling to feed their kids.

Navigating the hunger relief system

When Paola reached out to the county for food benefits, she was told she’d have to come into the office to apply. That meant finding transportation and child care. More confusing paperwork. More waiting. Fortunately, she found Merrick Community Services’ Food Shelf not far from her home.

“They were very kind and helpful at Merrick,” Paola said. “They told me I could get help with SNAP benefits at Second Harvest Heartland.” (SNAP is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps.)

Second Harvest Heartland SNAP Outreach Manager, Betty Balan, said Paola’s experience is not unique. “We’ve heard from people we serve that the process can be extremely difficult to navigate,” she said. “We simplify the whole thing by helping them with the application.” 

The SNAP Outreach Team at Second Harvest Heartland consider themselves bridge-builders. “It’s our goal to work with organizations, like Merrick Community Services, to raise awareness about the availability of SNAP benefits,” explained Balan. “It’s vital for everyone to know about all nutrition assistance opportunities. Unfortunately, many aren’t always aware of all their options.”

"We are committed to scaling up partnerships and operations to keep pace with the problem of hunger in Minnesota. By expanding our work with partners, we can get more healthy food to more people who need it," shares Balan.

Making fresh affordable

Samantha Soriano, nutritional and independent services manager for Merrick Community Services, first met Paola at the food shelf, but connected with her again at a fresh produce distribution.

Like most families, Soriano said Paola uses the fresh produce distribution to supplement what she receives from the food shelf. Judging from the line that begins to form around 8 a.m. (the distribution doesn’t open until 10 a.m.), people are excited about the fresh options.

“Fresh produce is expensive,” Soriano said. “People love that they can come here and get it for free. Sometimes we even run out, but nothing goes to waste.”

The Merrick fresh produce distribution is just one of countless locations throughout the state, where community partners and volunteers come together to deliver an array of fresh produce, primarily from local farms, throughout the summer and early fall.

Through fresh produce distributions, Second Harvest Heartland and our community partners are able to get fresh food to families like Paola’s who need it most. The new Second Harvest Heartland Brooklyn Park facility will have more than double the cooler space, allowing us to invite more of our neighbors to the table.

Finding stability through food

Paola admits that when her husband’s cousin first told her about the food shelf, she expected another set of confusing steps. To her surprise, the process was clear, and she was treated with dignity and respect. Best of all, she was able to get food for her family the same day she visited. Paola was so happy, she cried. She now visits the food shelf once a month and the fresh produce distribution during the summer. The food eases her worries and helps her cook nutritious meals for her family. She uses fresh cucumbers and watermelon to make salads and flavored water. She uses potatoes for baking and tomatoes for sauces.

While there are still things she’d like to change — she’d like to move her family to a safer neighborhood and find a more flexible job — Paola said her family life feels much more stable now that they don’t have to worry about food.

“We are very grateful for the help we receive,” she said. “We are not greedy people. We just want the best for our children, like everyone else.”


Today, while the economy in the heartland is booming, one in 11 people – including one in eight children – do not know where their next meal will come from. You can help fuel a stronger, healthier Minnesota where everyone is fed by making a gift of time, dollars or conversation today.


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