There’s much to celebrate at Valley Outreach

Charlee Leonard, 2, eats an easy-to-prepare healthy tuna salad during Valley Outreach’s open house Oct. 30

Valley Outreach in Stillwater has been busy.

As it celebrates 30 years of service to the community, the nonprofit has also been doing a remodeling project expected to save the organization $20,000 per year and make it easier for clients to choose a healthy diet.

“We’re just using our (existing) space more effectively,” Executive Director Christine Tubbs said.

At the end of September, Valley Outreach began renovating its building at 1911 Curve Crest Blvd. A one-week closure of the food shelf and a two-week closure of the clothing closet ended Oct. 7, but the project is just now coming to a close. An Oct. 30 open house showcased the nearly finished product.

Physical changes to the interior of the facility are significant. In addition to painting walls and shelves, the group rearranged the space and removed several walls,
including one separating its two warehouses in the back of the building. That created significantly more storage space, which is the source of the anticipated $20,000 in annual savings according to Tubbs.

Valley Outreach buys food from partners, such as Second Harvest and the Emergency Food Shelf Network, at significantly reduced prices. Sometimes a supplier has a large quantity of low-cost items available. With the increased storage space, Valley Outreach can buy up to six months-worth of food when the items are available cheaply. That’s where the savings comes from.

Making money go farther is a big deal for a food shelf that serves more than 400 families a month and is distributing nearly 55,000 pounds of food this year, a 15,000 pound increase over last year, according to Tubbs.

But the project wasn’t only about money. It was also about serving clients more efficiently and enabling them to make more healthy diet choices.
“We want to make sure we not only have enough food but good quality food,” Director of Programs Liz Stone said.

The food shelf added freezers, which enabled it to offer frozen fruits and vegetables for the first time. It also expanded its fresh produce, whole-grain and other healthy options.

Thanks to a partnership with PowerUp, a community-wide youth health initiative, experts from Lakeview Health advised the food shelf on how to offer healthy food, such as fruits and vegetables, and how to make it appealing.

“There’s more (healthy options), they’re more positively displayed, and they’re more prominently displayed,” said Marna Canterbury, director of community health and wellness for PowerUp.

When clients walk in, the first items they see are various types of fruits and vegetables, whether fresh, canned or frozen. Canterbury also pointed out that the less processed, healthier foods are positioned at eye level so they’re more visible. Healthy options are also marked with a star.

To make it easier for clients to prepare healthy meals and snacks, PowerUp and Valley Outreach are offering easy recipes, as well as samples of some of those recipes and other healthy foods.

“Kids taste it, and (parents) go, ‘Huh, my kid will actually eat that,” Stone said.
But the healthy food isn’t being forced onto people. The usual fare is still available, and the shopping experience was modeled after a grocery store.
“It’s not a healthy directive,” Tubbs said. “It’s a healthy choice. … We want to treat our clients just as if they walk into Cub.”

With mounting concern surrounding child obesity nationwide, Valley Outreach’s model could catch on. Katie Bull of Second Harvest, who attended the open house Oct. 30, said her organization is considering the redesigned food shelf as a model for Second Harvest’s other partners to duplicate.

“Healthy food is the talk of the town,” Bull said.

The total cost of the remodeling project, including infrastructure improvements such as a new database, was $50,000. It was funded by Twin Cities United Way and the Pohlad Family Foundation.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]