Flexible food: Twin Cities food shelves adapt for COVID crowds

4October 2020

Ken Lang is stuck in a line of 200 cars. Inch by inch, he moves ahead.

But Lang, a 71-year-old retired Xcel Energy worker, needs what is at the end of the line — a box of food. He doesn’t know exactly what will be inside.

“I don’t mind the wait. The food is fantastic, and the people are great,” said Lang, as he waited at the Christian Cupboard Food Shelf in Oakdale last Wednesday.

This is not the way food shelves usually operate. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, food shelves are bending the rules. Clients have to wait in their cars and there are fewer volunteers.

They give away things that aren’t even edible — flowers, diapers, shampoo. And some even give extra food, for the recipients to give away themselves.


When asked about all the changes, Jessica Francis looked wearily at the endless line of cars.

“We have seen an astounding increase,” said Francis, director of Christian Cupboard.

The nonprofit gave three times more food in July than the monthly average last year. Since July, the line of cars is only getting longer.

“Demand is not slowing down. It’s speeding up,” said Francis.

State officials report that in June — the latest figures available — 345,000 people visited food shelves in Minnesota. The state Department of Human Services said that was a 20 percent increase compared with June 2019.


Volunteer John Servatius loads cars with groceries at the Christian Cupboard. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

For food shelves, COVID-19 has forced them to adopt changes to how they operate.

In the past, clients would walk into a building, and pick and choose their food that was displayed in aisles. Now food shelves must pack individual boxes of food and load them into waiting cars.

“Most food shelves had a shopping model,” said Mary McKeown, director of Keystone Community Services, which operates food shelves and food-mobiles. “We can’t do that now.”

Food shelves are changing norms regarding volunteers, too.

In the past, it was unthinkable that they would fire volunteers. But the St. Paul Park food shelf Friends in Need laid off two-thirds of its volunteers when COVID struck last spring. Director Michelle Rageth said the older volunteers were susceptible to the virus.

Christian Cupboard’s Francis said that half of her volunteer force melted away, although some have since returned. She said that the group has been able to replace some volunteers with younger unemployed people looking for a way to help.

Food shelves also have changed regarding what volunteers can do.

Volunteers are allowed in new roles, such as would-be traffic cops in crowded parking lots. One Friends in Need volunteer — call him the Midnight Meat-Packer — arrives after closing time every day, and packages meat for four hours.


The shelves have been forced to change with their new clientele.

At summertime events at Allianz Field in St. Paul and Roseville High School, Keystone gave 50-pound boxes of food that fed about 14,000 people, McKeown said. Of those, 60 percent were first-timers.

The average client visits a food shelf three times a year, said McKeown. So officials have to spend time explaining themselves to first-timers embarrassed to be accepting charity.

“This is an unexpected crisis. That is what food shelves are for,” said McKeown.


Volunteers John Baranick, top, and John Swanlund place bread products in bags at the Christian Cupboard food shelf. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

The food itself is different these days as well.

Food shelves benefit from the closing of restaurants that featured locally grown food. Local farmers planted their crops last spring, and now need to dispose of the produce.

“We are making sure none of that food goes to waste,” said Keystone’s McKeown.

The food is better, she said, because of the thousands of idled workers who now have time for gardening. “We are getting a ton of tomatoes, squash and beans right now,” she said.

Food shelves bend the rules for items that aren’t food at all. They have added household supplies — diapers, cleaning products, toothpaste, shampoo.

The new mission is to save money for clients with household supplies. “Your typical Target run might cost you $300,” said McKeown.

One food shelf is bending the rules because it has too much food.

Friends in Need encourages clients to take extra food for themselves or anyone else. “They can give it to neighbors, family members, whatever,” said director Rageth.


On Wednesday, a line of cars snaked around the driveway at Guardian Angels Church in Oakdale, waiting for food at the Christian Cupboard.

Volunteer Julie Larson asked each driver a few screening questions — ZIP code, number of seniors, number of children. She then flashed a signal to the food-loaders — one finger for one family, two fingers for two families — to load the cars properly.

The food shelf buzzed with 20 volunteers loading, packing, talking with clients.

Doug Ryden of Woodbury says he has worked here every day since March — except for two days off.

“Flowers! Who wants flowers?” he shouted at the line of cars, reaching into a cart full of fresh-cut roses that appeared out of nowhere.

“It’s my anniversary!” said one woman, yelling through a face-mask. “40 years!”

“Beautiful flowers for beautiful people!” said Ryden.

Ken Lang of Oakdale receives groceries several times a week at the Christian Cupboard food shelf in Oakdale. “I don’t mind the wait. The food is fantastic, and the people are great,” said Lang, as he waited in a long line of cars on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

One of the last clients of the day was Lang, the solo retiree.

“Hey, troublemaker!” said Ryden, as the food-boxes were plopped into his car.

When the last car left, Ryden raised his arms and addressed the volunteers, like a stage manager after a play.

“Good job, everyone!” he boomed. “Good job.”


Food shelves need volunteers — especially younger ones, less susceptible to COVID-19. Most need more donations of food, especially fresh produce. But financial donations are preferred, because food shelves can buy as much as 10 times more food per dollar than donors shopping in supermarkets.

Some of the food shelves in the east-metro area are: Keystone Community Services, 651-645-0349, keystoneservices.org; Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf, Oakdale, 651-233-1296, ccefs.org; and Friends in Need, St. Paul Park, 651-458-0730, finfood.org.

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