Packages with a purpose

MARSHALL – More than 400 passionate and dedicated volunteers gathered together for the first-ever United Against Hunger food packaging event Monday at the National Guard Armory in Marshall.

Together, those volunteers packaged 11,666 bags of food – for a total of 70,000 meals – all of which will be supplied to food shelf organizations in Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Yellow Medicine and Redwood counties.

“It’s been fantastic,” said Marcy Heemeyer, executive director of the United Way of Southwest Minnesota. “We have everything from church groups to confirmation classes and businesses. Bremer Bank sent 75 employees this morning. There are people from Schwan’s, the Marshall School District and the list goes on and on. Then we have some families, too.”

Heemeyer said that the first shift of workers – the setup crew – began at 7 a.m., followed by three two-hour packaging shifts staggered throughout the day. About 20 core volunteers stayed the entire time, primarily serving as registration coordinators and station leaders, she said.

“Really, we have volunteers coming from throughout our five-county service area, which is amazing,” Heemeyer said.

Archer Daniels Midland Company plant manager Mike Pasquariello was one of the volunteers who gave of his time.

“It’s a wonderful event,” Pasquariello said. “It’s nice to see people come together and work on something like this, that helps those who are less fortunate. I’m with ADM, and we’re sponsoring the event, so it’s kind of nice to see my employees out here giving of their time, too.”

Heemeyer noted that United Against Hunger was one of the five key areas where the United Way of Southwest Minnesota used grant dollars. The other areas include safety and well-being, income or financial stability, education and health.

“We really wanted to do something that touched all five counties that we serve and to mobilize a lot of people, engage a lot of people and then bring some awareness to an issue that is happening where we live,” Heemeyer said. “Hunger isn’t just an issue in big cities. It’s happening here, too.”

According to Map the Meal Gap Study reported on the Feeding America website, more than 583,000 Minnesotans were estimated to be food-insecure, meaning that they don’t necessarily know where they will find their next meal. That means that more than 6,100 individuals in the five-county area are estimated to be food-insecure.

“This event provides 70,000 meals locally,” Pasquariello said. “I like the fact that it will be put to good use.”

Cottonwood youth Trinity Broberg came to help out with her parents, Stacey and Chuck Broberg, and said she enjoyed the experience.

“It was fun,” Trinity Broberg said. “I helped with stickers. I liked it.”

Stacy Broberg heard about the event at work and decided to recruit some family members to assist in the cause.

“I work at North Star Mutual Insurance, and they sent out a thing about it,” she said. “Plus, we used to be on the United Way committee for our job, so we just thought it was a good thing to do. I had a good time, too.”

While taking steps to help curb hunger by packaging meals is admirable, the effort didn’t just stop there. Simple, low-cost recipes were also included in the macaroni and cheese meals.

“We worked with the culinary team at Schwan’s, and they developed three recipes that will compliment the macaroni and cheese product that we’re packaging,” Heemeyer said. “They are easy, low-cost recipes with three or four ingredients, so consumers of the food shelf can really stretch the meal even further.”

Along with the addition of the recipes, education is a key part of the mission.

“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to package and do an event like this, and we didn’t want to do a one-and-done event, so the recipes will be something long-lasting and hopefully teach some basic cooking skills as well,” she said. “We’re hoping that consumers of the food shelf can adapt, like maybe there’s peas on hand that day, so they can incorporate them into the recipes as well. Also, the Minnesota Extension is going to partner with us, for the life of the product, to do some on-site education with the participating food shelves.”

The United Against Hunger event would not be made possible without the financial sponsors, Heemeyer said, noting that ADM was the gold level sponsor, while United Way of Southwest Minnesota, the Redwood County United Way and Outreach, Inc. also partnered for the event.

“The soy protein that’s actually in the product, which is very nutritiously sound, is manufactured by ADM, our premiere sponsor,” Heemeyer said. “United Way of Southwest Minnesota, we’re kind of the silver level sponsor. And because we just serve western Redwood County and they serve the rest of the county, the Redwood County United Way is kind of like the bronze level sponsor.”

Heemeyer explained that Outreach was a non-profit organization out of Iowa that assisted the team in its mission. Along with a label recognizing the efforts of ADM and the partnership of the two United Ways, there is a label from Outreach on each case of food, she said.

“Outreach is the expert in teaching us how to do this,” Heemeyer said. “The labels are just another reminder for people, in case they have questions in the future or maybe want to volunteer at an event in the future. That’s what we’re hoping.”