Providing meals and community in Coon Rapids

The Salvation Army in partnership with Loaves and Fishes has sought to provide free meals twice a week at the Coon Rapids Salvation Army location since March 5.

Volunteer Jillian Wold prepares the egg sandwiches for the free meal at the Salvation Army in Coon Rapids. Each meal must contain a fresh fruit, fresh salad, protein, whole grains and milk according to the guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Education. Photo by Bethany Kemming

Volunteer Jillian Wold prepares the egg sandwiches for the free meal at the Salvation Army in Coon Rapids. Each meal must contain a fresh fruit, fresh salad, protein, whole grains and milk according to the guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Education. Photo by Bethany Kemming

Every Monday and Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., volunteers prepare free meals for anyone who comes, which is usually around 60 people, according to site coordinator Beth Ann Dodds.

“People come and eat and it’s no questions asked,” site subcoordinator Tracy Nordby said.

Each meal has to follow the guidelines of the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Education.

The meal must contain a fresh fruit, fresh salad, protein, whole grains and milk. Protein is frequently offered in the form of beans and rice for a vegetarian option as well.

Dodds stressed the importance of the meals containing the proper nutrition and said many low-income families are not getting enough fruits and vegetables.

“Our clientele is high in diabetes, high in cholesterol and high in heart disease,” she said. “Providing fruits and vegetables to prevent that is important.”

The program runs on volunteer work of teams with at least eight members.

If a team of volunteers comes, they plan the menu, buy the food and prepare it. When groups are not volunteering, Dodds and Nordby get food from the Second Harvest Heartland food shelf and prepare the meal.

They have always had enough food and offer seconds around 90 percent of the time, according to Dodds.

Getting enough volunteers has been a challenge, however. There are 10 Loaves and Fishes locations throughout the metro, and the rest of them offer meals five nights a week.

Dodds said they hope to expand to five nights a week at the Salvation Army by the end of the year but are unable to until they get a solid base of volunteers.

Currently, most of the teams that have volunteered were from a Rotary club or faith-based organizations.

Individuals are welcome to volunteer on their own as well and Dodds said most days have been covered by individual volunteers.

According to Nordby, another challenge is having the right supplies.

“When you’re running something at someone else’s site you use what they have and sometimes have to bring stuff from home,” Nordby said.

Without a large volunteer base, they have been using all disposable plates, utensils and cups, because those preparing and serving the food do not have enough manpower to also run the dishwasher.

Nordby said they have a wish list of items they would love to have donated.

They surveyed those eating at the site a few months ago and found that only three of the 75 surveyed were employed full time. Everyone else was either unemployed or employed part time.

Along with providing the meal, Nordby and Dodds seek to provide a social service aspect to the evening.

They speak with individuals while they’re eating to make sure they’re getting the resources they need and direct them to return to the social service agency upstairs when it’s open if they need assistance.

“We’re not social workers but we do act as that as much as we can to help people,” Dodds said.

The meal times have become a community, sometimes even complete with live music, she said. Doors open at 5 p.m., half-an-hour before the meal starts, and no one is forced to leave right at 6:30 p.m.

“Quite a few people might not have the social circle that everybody needs. This is their social circle,” Dodds said.

Nordby said many people even tell them ahead of time if they won’t eat there the next night.

“Tracy and I play momma here, taking care of everybody,” Dodds said.

The Salvation Army site is the only Loaves and Fishes location in this part of the Twin Cities suburbs.

Other locations have partnerships with restaurants to cater once a month or with grocery stores that frequently donate fresh produce.

Dodds said their location hopes to partner with a grocery store or local restaurant.

Bethany Kemming is at bethany.kemming@ecm-inc.com

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