St. Paul unions stepped up to help feed families in our community – and beyond

By Erica Dalager Reed, AFL-CIO Community Services liaison

I was first blessed to work with the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program as the executive director of a congregation in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. The goal was to help people experiencing food insecurities obtain fresh food on a regular basis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been economically devastating to many across the U.S., and the Farmers to Families program offered free, fresh food to anyone who needed it.

But it quickly became evident to me that, when it came to the distribution of mass quantities of food, organized labor was the best partner to have.

At each Farmers to Families food event, we give away a truckload of food containing about 1,300 boxes of food weighing 30 pounds each and 1,300 gallons of milk. At our first labor distribution event last October at the St. Paul Labor Center, the St. Paul Building Trades secured a forklift and operator. Other unions came with a pallet jack. And the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation recruited volunteers to help unload and distribute the food. All told, some 75 union and community volunteers joined the event.

We learned a lot that day. First and foremost, we saw that the need in the community was great. People were hungry. The line of cars down West 7th Street was endless. And everyone that came through was so relieved and grateful to be receiving food. The most-asked question our volunteers heard was, “When are you doing this again?” It was wonderful, in the darkest days of the pandemic, to see fellow union members safely and help our neighbors.

From that initial event at the Labor Center, our vision at the St. Paul Labor Studies and Resource Center grew, and we saw an opportunity to help our neighbors in need across the state of Minnesota. We began securing trucks full of food for communities across the metro, as well as Duluth, Long Prairie, St. Cloud, Rochester, Mankato, Milaca, North Branch, Proctor, Hibbing, Virginia, Worthington, Winona, Eveleth, Mahnomen, Owatonna, Red Lake, Cass Lake, Monticello and East Grand Forks. Unions in North Dakota were able to host nine events throughout their state. Unions in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Arizona and Washington participated as well.

In all, our nonprofit helped distribute over 60 truckloads of food, lifting up people in need in the east metro and beyond. Each food event brought together labor partners, union members, community members, churches and nonprofits, working toward the common goal of feeding people in need. Time and time again, labor led the way, providing the space, equipment, resources, relationships and volunteers necessary to ensure each event was a success.

We saw people walk, ride their bikes and drive through the contactless distribution lines. Everyone was welcome, no questions asked. Despite our best efforts, some folks couldn’t help but get out of their vehicles to offer up a hug, a handshake or a few tears. Many were overwhelmed by labor’s generosity. Strangers to the movement became allies and partners, delivering food to neighbors, small non-profits, churches and group homes. If someone reached out with a need, labor was there to assist in delivering food.

The Farmers to Families program will wind down at the end of this month. So where do we go from here?

We know the need is still great. One in nine individuals lives with food insecurities, and the pandemic has brought to light the inequity and inequality that so many experience. When another opportunity arises to serve our neighbors, I know labor will be there to answer to call. That’s who we are! And at the same time we are serving the community, we are informing and educating the community about what our movement stands for – economic security, dignity, good benefits and living wages.

I am grateful to have been a part of this incredible opportunity. Working side by side with so many in the labor movement to bring about significant change in our communities and beyond has been a true blessing.

– Erica Dalager Reed is an AFL-CIO Community Services liaison with the St. Paul Labor Studies & Resource Center, the nonprofit arm of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. She wrote this “Labor Voices” column for the June 2021 issue of The Saint Paul Union Advocate.

Comments

  1. It has been an honor and a privilege to be part of this effort.

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