Case Study: A Food Shelf

How can we improve the lives of food shelf participants?

CAPI, a direct human-services nonprofit in South Minneapolis, collaborated with AIGA Minnesota Design for Good to assess how to better serve its food shelf participants. Sandy Wolfe Wood, as Associate Director of AIGA Minnesota Design for Good, oversaw the project and the relationship with CAPI, hiring a design team that included a design strategist, an assistant designer, and a public policy intern. This team worked from an on-site office at CAPI's headquarters during the summer of 2013.

A pilot project

CAPI opened a food shelf over 30 years ago to serve the growing number of Hmong and Southeast Asian refugees arriving in the Twin Cities. It is the only Asian-specific food shelf in Minnesota. The food shelf sits in the basement of the Sabathani Community Center and as its users have scattered across the metro area, they still make the trip to East 38th Street. CAPI sought to evaluate if they should move the food shelf, expand it, and how they could better serve its participants. This served as a pilot project to test design thinking methods in addressing social sector problems. Funding for this project was jointly shared between CAPI and AIGA.


The Twin Cities is known for its strong nonprofit sector, one that boasts many experts on food scarcity and food shelves. However, on this issue, the design team wanted to hear from CAPI’s real experts: those who regularly use the food shelf. Before doing anything else, it was important to learn more about the role this food shelf plays in its constituent community.

Potential barriers

Asking the right question. CAPI’s food shelf is small and has been situated in the same place for 30 years. Among the staff, there was an unwritten assumption that the food shelf needed to move. However, the project lead took a step back and asked a very basic question: Why are people traveling from all over the Twin Cities to this food shelf? What is special about it? And what are the opportunities to build on what is already making it appealing to so many member of the Hmong community?

Gaining credibility. Many in the Hmong community and particularly the elders who use the food shelf speak little or no English. Fortunately, one design team member grew up in the Hmong community and was able to bridge language and cultural barriers. This created an opening for the team to do home visits, face-to-face interviews, and gain the trust of CAPI’s participants.

Balancing quantitative and qualitative data. Measuring impact and considering policy implications are both important parts of any social impact project. In assembling the design team, we hired a public policy intern who brought important quantitative skills the to team, and offered key political insights throughout the project.


The design team operated out of a dedicated room at CAPI’s headquarters. This was a critical piece of the project: It offered the team to post photos, drawings, written observations, and leave them up over the course of the project so that CAPI staff could wander in and offer their own comments. This opened a conversational opportunity between staff and the design team which broadened perspectives on both ends.

The team spent 6 weeks gathering data, formulating questions and learning as much as possible about the world of food shelves, this particular food shelf, and CAPI’s participants. They held listening sessions and developed ‘personas’ to represent the needs of food shelf users. The research, personas, and listening sessions helped the design team identify 3 primary goals to address the overall goal of improving the lives of the participants:

  • Increase a sense of confidence and self-sufficiency (as it relates to food access and providing for family)
  • Improve access to preferred food (culturally-relevant, nutritious, fresh
  • Create a stronger sense of community (within CAPI and across Twin Cities)

The team prototyped potential solutions that encompassed all of these objectives, and evaluated them with the CAPI users who had been part of the process throughout the project. Once the team had gathered feedback and modified some their ideas, they developed a list of immediate, short-term, and long-term recommendations compiled into a report appended with compelling narratives gathered from CAPI’s participants.


CAPI has used the report and particularly the personal stories contained within it to apply for implementation grants. One of the report’s key findings was that Hmong grandmothers—those who used the food shelf most frequently— desired to give something back to their community and to the food shelf. They proposed offering cooking classes, and the design team built a kitchen into their list of recommended add-ons for a re-located food shelf, something CAPI staff enthusiastically embraced for the future.

The process uncovered a critical point: In the case of the CAPI food shelf, food is more than nourishment for its participants; it is about maintaining a sense of culture far away from home.


AIGA Design for Good: Sandy Wolfe Wood, Associate Director; Anne Knauff, Advisory Board member; Linda Henneman, Director of Social Impact. CAPI: Jennifer Racho, Program Director; Pa lee Yang, Manager; Smidchei Xiong, Food Shelf Director. Design Team: Ange Wang, Design Strategist; Sieng Lee, Assistant Designer; Sook Jin Ong, Public Policy Intern.