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Truckloads of surplus oranges destined for the trash in California are now making their way to homes of needy families in the Twin Cities.

Fresh potatoes left to rot in Minnesota farm fields are now being harvested and given to hungry families. Unsold fruit and vegetables, bakery items and even meat that local grocers toss from their shelves are being picked up and redistributed to needy neighbors.

It's called food rescue, and Twin Cities-based Second Harvest Heartland food bank is a national leader in the movement.

Nearly half the 97 million pounds of food that Second Harvest gives away each year is fresh. Increasingly, reliance on canned goods and boxed foods is a thing of the past.

"It's a radical change," said Second Harvest CEO Rob Zeaske.

The organization's staff, many with vast corporate experience, are scouring every point of the nation's food supply chain — from growers, processors, grocers and even restaurateurs. The goal is to identify possible inefficiency and wastefulness, and then persuade businesses to donate.

"It's an assault to our sensibilities in Minnesota to throw away food," said April Rog, Second Harvest director of food rescue. "Businesses know it's just the right thing to do."

The result is healthier, fresher food for Minnesota's most needy families. The organization also participates in a Midwest regional produce cooperative with food banks in seven states.

For instance, Second Harvest combines individual shipments of fruits and vegetables and then redistributes them so neighboring food banks receive greater varieties in the quantities that they can handle.

"Food is medicine," said Zeaske, who pointed out that low-income people often rely on a diet of less expensive starchy, high-fat foods that results in obesity and related illnesses.

More than one-third of Second Harvest clients have diabetes, he said.

"This is what hunger looks like in America," Zeaske said. Unable to find or afford enough fresh food, low-income people "make the completely rational choice to find cheap calories."

The nonprofit group's success has created a shortage of space. Fresh food requires temperature controls and strict safe-handling procedures. The group bought a larger warehouse in Brooklyn Park and is asking legislators for state money to help pay for freezers, coolers and clean space so they can give away even more food.

"A critical shortage for us is on the refrigeration side. We can't even take bananas," Zeaske said.

The project has a $50 million price tag and the group is seeking $18 million in state money.

Recently, Zeaske gave a tour of Second Harvest's brimming warehouse in Maplewood. There were pallets of apples, peanut butter, cantaloupes and flour.

Second Harvest has grown from distributing 30 million pounds of food in 2007 to over 97 million pounds of food in 2017. Last year, they served 532,000 people, one-third of whom were children and teenagers.

Second Harvest is one of about 200 food banks in the country, among the top two in the country — jockeying for the top spot with the food bank in Houston.

It works with more than 1,000 food shelves and nonprofit programs throughout the region.

Zeaske, who joined the nonprofit a decade ago, said the last economic downtown became a prime catalyst for the food rescue movement.

Demand was up and donations were down. "We asked, 'How do we find more food?' "

The reality is surplus food is everywhere, Zeaske said. Second Harvest and partners needed to persuade businesses to give it away vs. throwing it out and then the nonprofit needed a sophisticated shipping network to bring it to those in need. They also work with a Minnesota Department of Agriculture program that pays farmers a small amount to harvest unsold crops.

"The bigger we've gotten, the more efficient we've gotten," Zeaske said.

'Delivering on those promises'

Bob Branham, Second Harvest's director of produce strategy, said he now finds more food than Second Harvest can store.

"The biggest issue for food recovery and rescue is capacity," Branham said.

As director of food rescue, Rog has helped establish relationships with nearly 500 local grocery retailers including Cub Foods, Target, Kowalskis and Lunds & Byerlys. Second Harvest and its partners pick up food at the stores almost daily. They have a fleet of refrigerated trucks to ensure food is kept fresh and at the proper temperature.

Branham, who previously worked at General Mills, knew companies had good, unsold food that they sometimes paid to throw away. Using that knowledge, he works with growers, processors and companies across the country to identify surplus fresh food and arranges to ship it to Minnesota.

"It's building those relationships," Bran­ham said. "It's promising, and delivering on those promises."

If Second Harvest pledges to remove a shipment of strawberries by a certain date, they follow through on that pickup, Branham said.

'The right thing to do'

Rog, who previously worked for Cub Foods, said grocers try to woo shoppers with an abundance of fresh produce — much of which goes unsold.

"Waste is a retail reality. Our retail partners feel donating the excess is the right thing to go," Rog said.

During the Super Bowl, Second Harvest launched a new food rescue mission. They located unserved food prepared by restaurants and caterers and sent it to meal programs with immediate need.

Second Harvest found a use for 152,000 pounds of prepared food and beverages from dozens of Super Bowl-related parties and events, everything from beef brisket and lamb chops to lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

MealConnect, a distribution program run through Feeding America — supported by General Mills — matches food with charities.

Rog shows off photos of food that Second Harvest saved and how chefs prepared it for the needy.

One is a plate with wild-rice meatballs, fruits and a salad. The meatballs, originally prepared for a Super Bowl party, were served at Loaves and Fishes, a meal program for people with low incomes.

"It's a beautiful, healthy plate of food," Rog said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804