'We Run Two Grocery Stores Where Everything is Free'

I started in hunger relief 20 years ago. I worked at an agency where we had a three ring binder of all the food banks in Minnesota. People would call and they would say that they were hungry and needed help. I would go through my three ring binder and tell them that when the food bank in your county was open. It might have only been open every two weeks or just on Thursdays. People would be crying and saying that they needed food that day. And there was nothing I could do. It was really clear to me then that more could be done.

By the fall of 2019, I had just started as executive director at Open Cupboard, a hunger relief organization in Minnesota. I was just getting my feet wet, and then everything changed when the pandemic happened.

Our board was aware we had gotten these generous donations and wanted to put them to good use; we didn't want them to sit in a bank account. We were asking ourselves: Where would they be helpful? And so that's really how our free grocery stores—which we call food markets—came to be.

Before the pandemic, one of our volunteers had visited Australia, and volunteered with a food poverty charity there. She had come back, and talked about the model they had used, which was making food rescued from grocery stores really accessible in a market atmosphere.

So we decided to rent a space in a strip mall in North Oakdale, design it like a food market or store, and create a different feel. I went to the Second Harvest Heartland food in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and said: "Would you help us get the food?" And they said yes. We opened the doors of our first free food market, Today's Harvest, within 100 days.

Providing free food in a grocery store environment

The first Today's Harvest was designed so that people walk in and are immediately given a shopping cart. A really key difference is that they don't enter the store and find that they are asked a lot of questions, and if they're eligible, then they can get food.

Free Minnesotan Grocery Store and Food Market
The interior of the second free food market opened by Today's Harvest. The free store opened in North Oakdale Minnesota in 2022. Ryan Stoppera

Everybody's handed a grocery cart and you just pick out your items. The store is designed like a typical grocery store, with displays, freezers and coolers. And then at the very end, we have a checkout where people answer a few questions that our cashiers enter into iPads.

We get our food from lots of different places; from grocery stores, farms, and even farmers markets. It is rescued when it's close to expiring, but still perfectly safe to eat; usually, the grocery store has pulled the food off the shelf in the morning and they give it to one of our two truck drivers who then delivers it to our volunteers to sort through it. By the end of the night, or the next day it is in the hands of families, because this is typically really perishable food.

The exact food in the store changes every day. But there's always fresh produce. There's always dairy items, like milk and eggs and all sorts of deli items. Some days, we might have a lot of cottage cheese, yogurt or coleslaw. It really changes, not just day-to-day but hour-by-hour. Then we have salads and fresh fruit and vegetables, and there's always meat. People can always choose from a different meat or meatless protein item from our freezers. We also have bakery items and any other items that the grocery stores have also donated.

We asked our clients what they needed most, and we're providing the items that they asked for; meat, milk, and fresh produce.

Our focus is fresh. But if grocery stores also give us non-perishable foods, like macaroni and cheese or tins of tuna, we will put those out, but that's not really our priority.

How much free food can people have?

We don't limit it to one person per household, we just have signage that indicates what can be taken per shopper. Each cooler or freezer has a strawberry shaped sign with a number on it. So the limit might be one item from a certain cooler. Or if we get a ton of salads that day, it might be four items from that cooler per shopper. And then they can fill a bag with whatever fresh produce is displayed separately to the coolers and freezers. If someone wants to fill their bag up with tomatoes, or potatoes, that's their choice.

The Free Food Store In Minnesota
A shopper at a Today's Harvest in Oakdale, Minnesota. The stores provide free food to the local community, who can choose their food within an environment that feels like a typical grocery store. Ryan Stoppera

We also serve people who speak a lot of different languages, and we don't want to have the signage be really complicated.

We were anticipating that eventually we would serve about 80 to 100 shoppers a day at our first store. We were serving that within the first week. And within a few months, we were serving over 200 people a day. Now, we're serving anywhere between 250 and 300 shoppers at that store on a typical day, and age ranges are wide. We found seniors in particular really liked it, because you can come to our store every day, if you want.

Seniors like to come and pick out a smaller array of items, and then come back when they need more. We also saw a lot of college students because there's a college nearby. And so they're swinging by after their classes and before they start their part-time job and then bringing home dinner for their families.

Providing free food stores for 140 zip codes

What we found striking at the beginning was how far some people were traveling to come to the store. We serve the east metro area of the Twin Cities in Minnesota and we're located in Oakdale, which is a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. However, we also serve people from over 140 different zip codes.

The word had spread that there was this place that people can go, where there are no appointments needed, and it doesn't matter where you live. People were coming from western Wisconsin and all over the state of Minnesota.

What we heard from people is that it felt so different. And that it felt so dignified and respectful. A lot of people have said it feels like shopping in a typical grocery store. They weren't asked a bunch of questions that made them feel judged, or feel like they had to deserve the food that was there. I believe it actually matters how our stores look and feel. It's not just about the food we're providing, but also about the environment.

1 of 2

It was clear early on that this model was working. And that we couldn't sustain the growth month-over-month in that location. We decided we needed to open a second store; a bigger food market with a bigger parking lot.

We actually converted a building we purchased into a store, and then we took over the space next door so that we could move some of our operations there. We opened the second Today's Harvest in South Oakdale March 2022.

Both of our food stores are open six days a week, so we rely on about 800 volunteers a year. And each week we need about 120 volunteers to make it all work. We have store staff and our truck drivers, but the rest is all done by volunteers who are restocking and assisting people. It's really incredible how many people are dedicating their time.

How inflation is affecting people's food budgets

The impact of rising inflation has been huge, you can see that here. In the first six months of 2022, we served more people than we served in all the previous year. So many people have said that they just can't make their grocery budget work with the high increase in costs. Rising gas prices have also meant that the budget people had to spend on food, after paying gas and everything else, is just shrinking.

Open Cupboard Staff Run Free Grocery Stores
Jessica Francis (front and center) and staff at Open Cupboard, a hunger relief organization in Minnesota. Courtesy of Open Cupboard

We've seen a big surge in seniors and also a lot of people shopping in our stores while still wearing their uniform from work. They are coming in straight from work and grabbing a few things to put on the dinner table that night. These people have got jobs; but it's not making ends meet. Before the pandemic, we were serving about 420 families a week. We're currently serving more than 4,000 families a week.

Of course, part of that is because we've expanded our programs. We've opened our free food stores and we also have shuttle buses that take people from local mobile home communities and bring them to the stores.

Right now, we're taking a look at an expansion plan because we would really like to work with other partners and open more food markets. But it's also about just spreading the word about this model in general and hopefully having a ripple effect in our sector and in general, and just inspiring others across America and beyond.

For me, it's really fulfilling, because we can see that we are making a difference for the people that are in here shopping.

I'm just gratified to see that somebody in a similar situation to those who called me when I first started working in this sector, will now know that if they can get to a Today's Harvest, they're going to walk away with food within a day.

Jessica Francis is executive director of Open Cupboard (formerly known as CCEFS) who run two Today's Harvest stores in Oakdale, Minnesota. Find out more at opencupboard.org.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.