With communal dining prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic, the organization serving free meals across Minnesota had little notice that a major change would be needed if it was to continue its community outreach.

Loaves and Fishes serves meals daily at locations across the Twin Cities and throughout the state. Some of those meals are served each weeknight at locations such as Creekside Community Center in Bloomington and New Bethel Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Other sites serve one to four meals per week, such as Brooklyn United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Center, which serves three weekday lunches every week, and Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth, which serves dinner on Monday evenings.

COVID-19 precautions have put a temporary end to dining at community centers and churches, but Loaves and Fishes is continuing to serve its free meals to those in need by offering take-home meals at its dining sites.

The meals are typically served for consumption on site, with limited to-go meals offered for circumstances such as spouses of diners who are physically unable to visit a dining site, according to Cathy Maes, the executive director of Loaves and Fishes. The commitment to serving take-home meals during the pandemic meant buying disposable food packaging in an adequate quantity to continue the meal service on a daily basis, an expensive proposition, Maes said.

Maes was concerned that warnings against mass gatherings and recommendations of social distancing would discourage some regular diners from visiting Loaves and Fishes sites. “They have proven me wrong,” she said.

The early results have resulted in an increase in the number of meals served at each site, according to Maes. “I think we’re seeing a lot of new people and more children,” she said.

Serving take-home meals has required other improvisation. Limiting the volunteer staff working with site coordinators in the kitchens of Loaves and Fishes sites, in an effort to abide by Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control recommendations, will pose challenges for ongoing meal service at the busiest sites. To meet that demand, Loaves and Fishes is partnering with Second Harvest Heartland to work with Minnesota’s Central Kitchen to prepare a portion of the approximate 3,500 meals served daily across Minnesota, Maes explained.

Minnesota’s Central Kitchen is a partnership of local chefs, restaurants and catering businesses, working to prepare meals using excess and donated food. The food is prepared in a commercial kitchen and will be transported to sites, where volunteers can package it to go, according to Maes.

Take-home meals may consist wholly of cold foods, be it salads or sandwiches with fruit, or they may have hot foods that have been warmed on site. Planning meals for packaging and transport means trying to avoid liquid foods, Maes noted.

Whether the meals are hot or cold, Loaves and Fishes will continue to produce nutritious, healthy and delicious meals, she said.

Most Loaves and Fishes sites are churches, but Bloomington’s community center site posed a challenge when the first preparations were being made to prevent the coronavirus spread.

The city of Bloomington announced during the afternoon of March 13 that the community center would close as of 5 p.m. that day, meaning Loaves and Fishes would be unable to serve its meal inside the building that night. Volunteers from Oak Grove Presbyterian Church coordinated a makeshift to-go food service for that evening, but distribution for Bloomington came to a temporary halt following that evening until a solution could be devised. Maes was optimistic that an ongoing alternate service plan would emerge.

With many Minnesotans out of work, at least temporarily, will Loaves and Fishes see an increase in demand for its service? The organization plans for more food than the average demand at its sites and will adjust accordingly, if necessary. “We’ll have food as long as we need to have food,” Maes said, referring to her organization as the “largest free restaurant in Minnesota.”

Loaves and Fishes served more than 1.3 million meals in 2019 and derives more than half of its revenue through in-kind food donations. Foundations provided more than $800,000 to the organization last year, and individual donations provided nearly $700,000. Information on donating to the organization and a list of its dining sites are available online at loavesandfishesmn.org.

VEAP

Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People provides a food shelf for residents of Bloomington, Edina, Richfield and portions of Minneapolis. The evolving pandemic and recommended response have changed the way the Bloomington-based organization is distributing food to those in need.

Before schools and restaurants were ordered to close, Joe McDonald, VEAP’s CEO, and Paul Jacobson, who oversees the organization’s food distribution, discussed ways to reduce the number of people coming through its pantry while continuing to provide the variety of dry goods, meats, produce and dairy products that are distributed daily. Initially, the plan was to scale down the number of pantry visits the organization would accommodate at one time, according to McDonald.

With coronavirus warnings turning to closures of schools, restaurants, entertainment centers and personal care businesses, it was evident that simply scaling down the foot traffic wouldn’t be adequate. VEAP did that for the first few days, then halted its distribution on March 19 and 20 to re-engineer the pantry for drive-up distribution, McDonald explained. “Scaling down regular operations wasn’t going to be an option,” he said.

The pantry allows visitors choices when it comes to which fruits and vegetables or dairy products they want. The new drive-up distribution system is intended to provide choices, particularly for those with dietary restrictions, but dry goods and shelf-stable products will be pre-packaged, based upon the size of the household they’re going to, according to McDonald.

During the past four months, VEAP has been averaging 170 households per day. If that volume proves to be too difficult to handle while offering options, or demand increases, choices may be eliminated, he said.

VEAP also provides mobile food distribution, through a customized bus and food distribution programs at Bloomington schools. The mobile food pantry serves seven locations, and five have suspended service during the pandemic. The food distribution program through Bloomington schools provides students with food for their families during weekends. Since students will not be staying home in the weeks to come, VEAP will consider options for continuing the service, McDonald explained.

Outside of food distribution, VEAP provides other support services, such as housing assistance. Many of those services are being facilitated through phone conversations rather than in-person visits, McDonald noted.

The loss of jobs in the community has increased the number of calls to VEAP and increased traffic to all areas of its website, including ways to volunteer or support the organization. Financial donations are the most beneficial, as the organization can purchase food in bulk from organizations such as Second Harvest Heartland and The Food Group, providing multiple meals with each donated dollar, according to McDonald.

Information about VEAP services and programs is available online at veap.org.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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