Equity Specialist, The Food Group
Food shelves in Minnesota are innovating. In recent years, many have made changes to their food offerings, and even their policies, in order to better meet the needs of their communities. Increasingly, food shelves are stocking fresh fruits and veggies, incorporating customer choice models, and launching new mobile programs in order to reach individuals that are unable to visit the food shelf due to transportation and mobility barriers.
Samty Xiong, Equity Specialist with The Food Group, is challenging food shelves to keep improving. From the food made available to how volunteers are trained, Samty supports food shelves in ensuring that the services they offer meet the needs of their increasingly diverse communities.
“What may be healthy to one cultural group may look different to another cultural group”
“When we talk about hunger in Minnesota, we recognize senior hunger is on the rise. Mobile food shelves have become a solution to their unique barriers to accessing food. Just as we’ve done with addressing food access barriers for seniors, we have long needed to address the barriers that people of color and diverse cultural communities face. I’ve heard food shelves say that the communities they serve are not racially or ethnically diverse based on who they see visit their food shelf. No one would say ‘we don’t have seniors in our community’ just because they don’t visit the food shelf. We need to change our food shelf practices if people aren’t showing up and ensure that the resources (food options, staff, volunteers, etc.) available are representative of the entire community. One also has to recognize the many ways a community is diverse, including age, ability, and dietary needs.”
As part of her role with The Food Group, Samty provides an introductory cultural competency training to food shelf staff and volunteers. “The trainings get people to think about their own cultural identity and how that informs their interactions with others.” The training challenges assumptions about food shelf participants and acknowledges new ways to approach challenges. “It is the responsibility of the food shelf and their volunteers to meet participants where they are at. For example, language barriers can be a big challenge in some food shelves. There is an anxiety on both ends of communication, but it is the responsibility of volunteers and staff to be ready to deal with those situations and engage in an equitable way.”
After working with Samty, food shelf managers have said that the training has really opened up new conversations and ideas. Many are exploring ways in which they can become more client-centered. One example of this is offering “walk-in” hours instead of requiring an appointment. Samty encourages food shelves to start off gradually and to test out new ideas, whether it be expanding culturally appropriate food options or being more flexible with food shelf hours. “Even if a food shelf is open only 4 days a week, try allowing walk-ins for one of these days. After a few months of piloting a change, a food shelf will have a sense of the impact and if they are reaching more community members.”
“It’s easy to connect on food because everyone eats it”
“I didn’t think critically about food in my life and how it connects to my racial and class background before, but those connections now inform the work I do. My parents came to the U.S. as refugees in 1988 and while both of them worked full-time jobs, they would also tend to a ¼ acre garden in order to provide food for my 4 siblings and me. The food we grew could not be found in the grocery stores where we lived. Growing up, I remember hating gardening. My mom would wake me up early in the morning during my summer breaks to help her garden. I now realize she did this to teach us. I have fond memories of eating fresh Hmong cucumbers as a snack at the garden, but I also have not-so-fond memories of sitting in our garage in cold October scraping cucumbers and freezing vegetables so we could eat them year-round. I grew up utilizing free and reduced lunch at school. I liked it because it was the only time I got to eat “American” foods and feel like I fit in with white students. I also remember being embarrassed by my mom when she would stop by the side of the road while driving to harvest Solomon’s seal. Now it’s hip to forage food or tend a backyard garden.”
Before joining The Food Group, Samty was an AmeriCorps VISTA placed at the City of Saint Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity where she coordinated the city’s racial equity initiative and helped provide racial equity training to over 1,500 city employees. In her role at The Food Group, she is able to focus on racial equity in food access and work on dismantling racism in the food system. Samty is also an active member of the Metro Food Access Network (MFAN) where she serves on their Strategic Team.
Related Minnesota Food Charter Strategies
- Increase the amount of healthy foods, decrease the amount of unhealthy foods, and provide a greater variety of healthy foods that are culturally familiar to customers distributed by food banks and food shelves.
- Increase resources available to hunger relief programs for obtaining and storing healthy foods, including food grown by nearby farmers and foods familiar to customers’ cultures.