“On time” was almost “too late” and “early” was also a little late when it came to the start of the food giveaway local unions ran last week.
“I got there around 8 to help set up, and there were already cars waiting,” said Beth McCuskey, president of the Duluth Central Labor Body. The giveaway was supposed to start at 11:30 a.m., but a little after 10 a.m., Labor leaders said the sheriff had contacted them to start as soon as possible, as cars were backed up from the DECC onto I-35 and needed to get moving.
The effort was coordinated between the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation and local Labor organizations such as the Duluth Building Trades, UFCW 1189 and the North East Area Labor Council.
As the working class struggles in a faltering pandemic economy, the demand at food shelves has risen to an all-time high in Minnesota, and events such as the one at the DECC draw a wide variety of people.
The event was open to anyone, and featured a drive-through no-contact “handoff” as volunteers packed 30-pounds boxes of food into trunks, truck boxes and back seats. There was no limit and no requirement to show any need.
Two semi-trailers of food showed up, carrying around 2,500 boxes full of applies, carrots, potatoes, onions, cooked chicken and yogurt, and jugs of milk. The fresh food was available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program.
Volunteers efficiently divided cars into two lines to pass through more quickly, loaded up the vehicles and jockeyed pallets around effortlessly on one of the first nice days Duluth has had in a couple of weeks.
Andrew Campeau of UA Local 11, who was helping load cars, said it was a great opportunity to provide a little help directly to people in the community.
At the same time, many of the volunteers were struck by the level of need in the community. It took about four hours to give away all the food.
Erica Dalager Reed, an AFL-CIO Community Services liaison with the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, said the fresh food boxes help families struggling with food insecurity to “supplement what they are getting from other resources,” like food shelves.
But offering fresh food comes with unique challenges for partner organizations.
Timing is everything. When a truck arrives at a distribution site, volunteers must be ready to unload and sort the food for contactless pickup. Distribution must begin – and end – shortly after the food leaves the truck to prevent it from spoiling.
It’s a labor-intensive process, which makes unions uniquely qualified for the job. And through their training centers and industry connections, unions can usually access a pallet jack or forklift to unload the trailer, too.
While the Farmers to Families Food Box program is scheduled to end in April, leaders said they are looking at other ways to provide the same level of relief to the community in the coming months.