The following was originally posted on The Salvation Army Northern Division’s blog.
Written by Julie Borgen, Twin Cities Media Relations Director
“It’s my birthday today, I would really love to have a pie.” It seems like such a simple request to most of us. But for the older woman who told me this at The Salvation Army food shelf in North Minneapolis, eating a special dessert for her birthday wasn’t a given.
She’s one of more than 500 people who will seek emergency food help at the N. Lyndale Ave. location this month.
Luckily, the staff here knows to set aside baked goods for these kinds of requests. The woman broke into a huge grin when I handed her that pie. It made me want to cry.
That’s just one small taste of what life is like every day at Salvation Army food shelves here in the Twin Cities. Three of my colleagues and I were lucky enough to experience it this week, after being invited to volunteer here for the day.
I work at Salvation Army headquarters in Roseville, and it’s my job to tell stories of the good work we do every day. But there is nothing like being face to face with the people we serve to bring it home.
“My clients are the most important things in the world to me … no one leaves here hungry,” said Alana Carrington, the social worker in charge of the food shelf. You believe her. She and the rest of the team here are passionate about the work they do.
North Minneapolis Food Shelf
The North Minneapolis food shelf is located in a small, dated space that used to be a mortuary. The walls are lined with aqua tile. Every available inch of floor is taken up with metal shelves that sag from the weight of canned goods, bags of rice and other staples. In another room, a fridge and two commercial freezers are used to stock butter, milk and meat, whenever the items are available.
When these items aren’t available, the staff here may even refer guest to another food shelf, since they can only come here once a month and they want everyone to be able to go home with meat.
Volunteers like Michelle, a student, and Mr. Jessie, who is retired, give hours of their time, every week, to keep these shelves stocked and to pack bags of food. Twice a week, they unload a truckload of food, cut open countless boxes, and neatly stack up hundreds of pounds of food.
“Having volunteers here really gives the staff time to talk to clients on a more personal level,” said Emily Shopek (pictured), lead social worker at this location. “People may be here to get food, but if we can talk to them on a deeper level, we may find out that they are homeless [or have other needs] that we can help them with.”
That sense of compassion is palpable here. It starts with Kerin at the front desk, who graciously welcomes everyone. It extends to simple gestures, like when social worker Matt quietly went to find donuts for a man who requested them. You can’t miss it in the energy and compassion that comes from the volunteers, who tell you it’s better to send the bags home a little heavy, than a little light.
It’s clear that the people who seek help here aren’t simply numbers. They are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They could be your next door neighbor. And they are all treated with dignity and care.
Feeding the Community
The goods in the food shelf are mainly purchased from food banks, but things like meat and bakery items are often donated from places like Lunds and Byerly’s. On this day, there was a $32 yule log cake, still tucked in its bakery box that went home with a family of eight. Luckily, there were enough baked goods on this day that everyone got to take home at least one treat.
The space at this location is too cramped for clients to pick out their own food. Instead, they make their requests and we pack up the bags in back and then deliver them to people in the lobby.
In spite of that separation, it’s striking how personal this process feels. You quickly find yourself wondering about each client, trying to guess what might please them when they open their bags.
Each food shelf guest takes home 15 pounds of staples like tuna, canned vegetables, chili and peanut butter. On this day, we were also able to give a pound of frozen meat per family member, along with packages of butter and gallon jugs of milk.
Truthfully, you wish you could sneak even more into the bags, but you need to remember there will be many more people here tomorrow who need food, too.
You also realize how heavy this food is and how creative people need to be in figuring out how to get it home. Some of the larger families came prepared with a ride, but others brought empty suitcases to fill with food and cart home on foot or on the bus.
The day went quickly, and we ended it with a sense of gratitude for having had the chance to experience it.
There is a special kind of grace that you feel here…and it’s a window into the important work that goes on at The Salvation Army every day.
How You Can Help
Your donations help support this and our other food shelves, that served 85,000 people in the Twin Cities in the last year alone. Nearly 30,000 volunteers make this work possible, and the food shelves can always use reliable people to help. If you will take the time to volunteer, I promise you, you will be glad you did.