Second Harvest Heartland finds fresh way to bring in more produce

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Second Harvest Heartland already provides food for people in need and now, they're trying out a fresh approach.

In recent years, the food bank has increased the amount of fresh food they distribute, with produce representing 40 percent of total distribution.

And while partnerships with Minnesota farmers has provided them with plenty of fresh options, there are some vegetables they have struggled to provide. Particularly, produce with a shorter shelf life, like lettuce, has proven challenging.

“We don’t have access to lettuce or any other leafy greens,” said Bob Branham, Director of Produce Strategy. “It’s very expensive and hard to manage. The only lettuce we have access to is from southern states.”

With a commitment to providing more nutritious food to their clients, the non-profit got to work on a solution.

“We realized if we want to serve our clients leafy greens, we would have to grow it ourselves,” said Branham.

Thanks to a gift from a private donor, Second Harvest purchased a mobile hydroponic farm. 

The insulated trailer is housed in their Brooklyn Park warehouse and allows them to grow leafy greens without the need for dirt or pesticides.

“Lettuce, once you cut it, you have a very short amount of time before you give that out and it’s still good. So as soon as I harvest this, I put it into a bag, it’s a four-week product shelf life,” said Eric Reller, Master Grower.

The tiny farm is now pumping out about 50 pounds of lettuce per week, putting the lid on the idea that food banks only deal in non-perishables.

“When you think of a food bank, a food shelf, you’re thinking canned goods, dried goods. We’re really putting a push on bringing in fresh produce,” said Reller.

Only six months in, Branham said they would love to expand the program in the future.

“The demand is there and it’s not going away,” Branham said.

Second Harvest offsets the cost of running the unit by turning on the lights during off-peak hours. Meanwhile, water is of little concern, as the farm only uses five gallons of water per day.