Valley Outreach Stocks Healthy Food Shelf

Valley Outreach focuses its food shelf on healthy options for families in a rough spot. Discover the culinary options possible in just 30 minutes with common food shelf items, thanks to the work of three chefs and the food shelf’s annual fundraiser.
Executive director Traci Maki

Stillwater-based Valley Outreach is a nonprofit emergency program for people in financial crisis, and it serves one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Maybe that’s why people in the Valley have a hard time visiting Outreach’s largest program, its food shelf on Curve Crest Boulevard.

“Following a major medical procedure or a job loss, you’ll get clients for four, five, six months, then gone again,” executive director Tracy Maki says. Meanwhile, of the 3,469 individuals who picked up 805,009 lbs. of food from the shelf in 2015 (one meal weighing about 1.3 lbs.), a surprising-to-some 15 percent came monthly throughout the year. Sixty percent of people using Outreach supplement what they already have in the kitchen. But around 40 percent need the food shelf to eat. About 38 percent of the food at Outreach goes to kids.

Poverty has grown faster in the suburbs than in any other national setting since the recession, according to a 2013 report by the Brookings Institute. Outreach sets its upper income limit of neediness at $48,000 a year for a family of four, or 200 percent over the federal poverty line—but they don’t ask for pay stubs, since “people have such a tough time walking through the door in the first place,” Maki says.

Outreach stocks its shelves with items purchased from food banks like Minnesota-based Second Harvest Heartland and The Food Group. Retail rescue programs donate food that grocery stores can’t sell, because it has just met or passed its expiration date. At one time, Outreach spent its budget at distribution centers like Bix Produce Co. on items such as macaroni and cheese, cake mix and ramen. It switched up its palate two years ago, and now volunteers scour resources for healthier options. Fresh blueberries, lean ground beef and low-sodium soups don’t often top grocery lists written with a limited income in mind. “If you don’t have a lot of money, you’re going to the corner grocery store or gas station,” Maki says. “Just because you’re not making the kind of money the neighbor down the road is doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to nutritious foods—especially for kids.”

The nonprofit taps into federal food assistance programs that discount nonperishables: canned garbanzo beans, potato flakes, vegetable oils without brand names, shrink-wrapped bags of dried cherries. The Outreach food shelf gave away 8 percent more food in 2015 than the year before. Nonetheless, it had to compost 57 tons of what was left on the shelves, or around 87,600 meals.

To raise awareness, Outreach held its third-annual cooking competition last November, at JX Event Venue in Stillwater, to demonstrate how anyone can combine these items into a meal that’s both nutritious and tasty.

Three teams of local chefs-in-training had 30 minutes to prepare an entrée using items found at the food shelf. Judges from the community ranked dishes by taste, presentation and use of ingredients: two organic chicken breasts, sweet potato baby food, chickpeas, breakfast sausage links, pears, maple syrup, kale, wasabi paste, Dijon mustard and dried cherries. Every ingredient had to be used at least once during the 30-minute competition, à la the Food Network’s Chopped.

One contestant was Jeremiah Lanes. He left the medical field for the culinary world about a year ago, encouraged by his wife to pursue his passion. Another was Jessica Mayer, who earned her culinary arts degree from Hennepin Technical College and works as a line cook at D’Amico Catering. She teamed up with Alex Musker, a friend from the college.Musker’s father inspired him by making macaroni and cheese into something unique every night of his childhood, using Spam, broccoli, bacon or anything they had on hand.

The event, held each fall, includes a live auction and speakers; in 2016, a young mother told her story of using Outreach while raising twins, going to school and waitressing. Outreach raised $104,000—the most the organization has collected since opening in 1983. Participation ranged close to 60,000 people, almost double the figure from 2014.

“It’s good to recognize that there continues to be need,” Maki says. “Much of it is situational poverty … but we will always have a segment of the population in chronic poverty.”

Next event:
November 3, 2017
Valley Outreach


Time Limit: 30 minutes

Required ingredients: Two organic chicken breasts, sweet potato baby food, chickpeas, breakfast sausage links, pears, maple syrup, kale, wasabi paste, Dijon mustard and dried cherries

Dijon Chicken with Maple Sweet Potato Puree and crispy Sausage Chips
By chef Jeremiah Lanes

  • 2 tsp. Dijon mustard for each chicken breast. Let marinate.
  • Sauté chickpeas, and mash with sweet potato baby food. Add maple syrup to taste. Plate as a side.
  • Cook sausage links until firm; cut to thin slices. Cook slices until crispy.
  • Slice and sauté pears to use as a base for plating. Wilt kale greens, and toss with dry cherries. Plate on pears.
  • Mix Worchester sauce with the wasabi paste until desired consistency. Drizzle over greens and sausage chips.
  • Sauté chicken breasts until done, then slice.

Wasabi Maple Chicken with Caramelized Cherries and Pears and Sweet Potato Mash
By chefs Jessica Mayer and Alex Musker

  • Combine 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, a pinch of wasabi paste, 1 tsp. maple syrup, salt and pepper to taste. Brush on chicken.
  • Sauté chicken in oil until cooked to 165 degrees internally. (Try to get a nice golden brown on the smooth side.)
  • Render fat from breakfast sausage on low heat. Take out sausages, and add thinly sliced pears and cherries. Caramelize. Take those out, and wilt kale.
  • Process baby food and chickpeas for a mash on the side.