Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen Executive Director Shannon Mills has seen people she has never seen before at the soup kitchen — and more of them.
“An elderly man showed up who has never used the soup kitchen before, and he lives near the soup kitchen. … And he said because of the health risks for him and his wife … they don’t want to be going out and about and so this was a safe way for them to come and get food,” Mills said.
The executive director of the Brainerd-based nonprofit said first-timers are showing up for assistance and guests have “quadrupled” after businesses closed and unemployment rose.
“The need has definitely increased. We’ve had people that have shown up at the soup kitchen to use our services that have never come to use our services before,” Mills said. “And our numbers have greatly increased. I would probably say doubled if not quadrupled.”
The soup kitchen switched last month from serving daily meals to offering to-go meals for those in need before the building closed its doors to the general public as a precaution March 26.
“I know one particular person worked in a fast-food restaurant, and her hours got cut. And she’s only making like $11 an hour as it is, and she had kids with her. … And she doesn’t qualify for food stamps because, you know, previously she didn’t. She made too much money,” Mills said.
Sharing Bread then teamed up with Operation Sandwich to assemble bags of food to distribute to people who visit the soup kitchen on Oak Street on Thursday evenings.
“Many of our guests are part of the vulnerable population, ... their ages or their health conditions,” Mills said. “We decided we needed to do things even safer for our volunteers and guests, so that’s why we decided to stop to-go meals and do those bags of food.”
The bags are distributed starting 5:30 p.m. Thursdays. A volunteer hands the guest a number, and when the number is called, the guest steps forward to receive the bag. What is in the bag depends on what can be acquired from the food bank, the grocery store and donations.
“Typically, they get some bread, peanut butter and jelly … canned veggies, canned fruit, macaroni and cheese. Sometimes they get milk, juice, frozen meats and fresh produce if we can get that in,” Mills said of the 130 to 140 bags handed out weekly. They are packed Wednesdays by volunteers for distribution.
“On Thursdays, they’re wearing gloves and they’re wearing masks,” Mills said of the volunteers. “And we also are handing out masks that we received from donations from an organization in the community. They made us masks. And so we’re handing those out to the guests also.”
Those in need of the bags of food from the soup kitchen do not need to answer any questions or provide any proof of need to receive food, according to Mills. The guests can remain in their vehicles or are asked to social distance themselves from one another in the parking lot while waiting for their numbers to be called by a volunteer.
“I’ve also coned off the area where they come and pick up their food at the table and so they’re not having to walk through a big crowd,” Mills said. “And then the volunteers are putting it on the table and keeping their distance. They’re not right there by the people picking up the food.”
Mills said she reached out to Operation Sandwich, a grassroots program intended to end childhood hunger by feeding children during the summer months when free and reduced meals are not available through the school system.
“They’ve been helping to pitch in to purchase the food and then getting volunteers also,” Mills said. “But there are so many other organizations that are helping us out and individuals and churches, so it’s a communitywide effort to help those in need out, not just us doing it.”
Mills said the nonprofit welcomes donations, which are tax-deductible, particularly financial donations rather than donations of nonperishable food. Nonperishable food donations are being accepted at Lakewood Church in Baxter.
“We can purchase things for a lot cheaper rate than the general public by purchasing things from the food bank, so our dollars stretch a lot further when I can go and purchase the food,” Mills said.
For more information on Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen, visit sharingbread.com or call 218-829-4203.
Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen
What: Free food assistance.
When: 5:30 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.
Where: 923 Oak St., Brainerd.
Donations: Mail checks to P.O. Box 632, Brainerd, MN 56401.