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On the days when women of East African descent come to the food shelf, the staff at Community Emergency Service knows to set out paper bags filled with sugar, flour and vegetable oil. Those are the first items that go in their carts.

“We try to provide them a different type of food shelf,” said executive director Mike Lloyd. The offerings “are not all ethnically specific, but they’re culturally appropriate.”

The staples are used to make injera, a type of African bread, and other popular Somali dishes. Once or twice a month, East African-American residents in need come to load up on food that includes goat meat and chori beans, along with more common offerings of tomatoes, onions, potatoes, spinach, bananas and oatmeal.

Food shelves in the Twin Cities have adapted to an ethnically diverse clientele, thinking beyond a generic approach for everyone who walks in. Those supervising the programs are multilingual and know the ingredients that Somali, Hmong and other ethnic groups are looking for; they know the dishes clients like to cook.

One morning last week, Smidchei Xiong stepped into the waiting room of CAPI USA to usher a Hmong woman into a room full of food. He swiftly loaded the jasmine rice into her cart, knowing that for many of his customers, it was not even a question.

She told him in Hmong that she did not want apples, instead picking out a pineapple. She asked how many loaves of bread she could take; Xiong told her two.

Then the woman spied packages of noodles from Taiwan and wanted to know if they were sticky or not (they were). She could use them in egg rolls, perhaps, or mix them with chicken, onion and cilantro.

“She can cook so many different dishes with that,” Xiong explained.

They rolled her cart onto a scale. He recorded that she had taken 26 pounds of food.

The nonprofit organization has had an Asian food shelf since the early ’80s. Yet Xiong noted that after recently moving the food shelf from south Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center, it serves a more racially diverse group. People still come for the Taiwanese noodles, bok choy, and Chinese rice vermicelli; at other times customers can find cans of bamboo shoots and coconut milk. But they also get corn husks used to make Mexican tamales.

Xiong said he sees about 15 new families come in each week.

“It’s something that I really enjoy, to see new faces … whatever they need, I can help them,” he said.

By 10 a.m., just an hour after the food shelf opened last week, a group of seven people had already gathered in a waiting room. Xiong went to bring in the next customer, another Hmong woman.

When he gestured to the kale in the refrigerator, she was reluctant but agreed to try it. With her family of six, he told her that she could take six pears and six apples. She took three bags of small onions and another three bags of red potatoes.

Meanwhile, the food shelf at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis serves a mostly East African-American crowd.

It offers the same Taiwanese noodles, along with canned cactus and bamboo shoots. A staple of Indian cuisine also eaten in Africa, naan, is in the refrigerator — along with tortillas.

A sign hanging in the hallway outside notes that Islam considers food a blessing from Allah, quotes from prophet Mohammed that one should eat only when hungry, and encourages a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables. Thirty to 40 people usually come over several hours.

“The first thing they ask you for is flour,” said Ibsa Mussa, who oversees the program. “When they ask, ‘Do you have flour?’ and there is no flour, they leave.”

Sure enough, he raced to get more when supplies ran out. Mussa tore open the plastic casing wrapped over eight flour bags as customers waited. A series of Somali and Oromo women bantered with Mussa as they loaded up their bags.

“I have 10 minutes!” he called out in English. “We will close!”

A woman came to his desk with bags of bananas, beans and flour. “Last name?” he asked her, recording the transaction. Another said she was planning to make Indian chapati bread with today’s haul.

Culture, food and health

Sahra Ali mostly speaks in Somali with the East African-American women who come to Community Emergency Service in south Minneapolis, helping them select a bounty of food. She noted that many are feeding large families, some as many as 10 people.

Even so, they are wary of processed food. The long table only has a few such items: instant oatmeal and boxed macaroni and cheese.

“We never use [ready-made], put it in the microwave,” said Ali, coordinator of East African services, of her clientele. “Everything is cooked.”

The table she oversees also displays dried plums, carrots, blueberries, apples, zucchinis, herbs and oranges. The goat meat is temporarily sold out. Ali acknowledged that the food shelf doesn’t carry some items that are popular in Somali culture, such as papayas and mangoes.

Culturally targeted food shelves are also considering how to address health problems in their communities.

Horizons Unlimited, which describes itself as the only culturally specific food shelf serving the area’s urban American Indians, stopped serving donated sugary snacks at events in recognition of the higher rates of diabetes among their clientele.

“One thing we’re trying to do … is incorporate less processed foods and healthier foods,” said Louise Matson, program director at Division of Indian Work.

The Minneapolis food shelf sometimes serves venison, walleye and wild rice when they’re available. It also offers seasonal berries used in indigenous cuisine. Horizons Unlimited is staffed mostly by Native workers.

“We love our non-Native allies, but coming to a place where you’re being served by your own communities and you’re being surrounded by a place that makes you feel welcomed is a big step to being a culturally specific food shelf,” Matson said.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210