Popular pop-up pantry preps for plenty of people picking up produce

A produce pop-up pantry is a traveling food shelf that delivers nutritious food directly to families in need, but Monday’s pop-up pantry at the Washington Street mall will last that day only as long as the food Second Harvest supplies for that day for the Brainerd lakes area is available.

Crow Wing Energized community health educator Alyssa “Al” Gawboy of Baxter volunteers loading produce at the March 30 pop-up pantry at the Westgate Mall parking lot organized by Second Harvest North Central Food Bank and Essentia Health. Trisha Zimmerman / Second Harvest North Central Food Bank

It was a sight normally reserved for maybe a Black Friday at the Westgate Mall during its heyday: vehicles lined up in the parking lot as far as the eye could see.

They were not at the area shopping center on April 13 for a big screen TV, but rather to pick up free produce after the coronavirus caused businesses to close and unemployment to rise.

“Before the pandemic, we were able to just have these huge, like, cardboard boxes filled with food, and people could come and take as much as they needed,” said Kalsey Stults, a Crow Wing Energized community health and wellness specialist.

In partnership with community supporters like Essentia Health and Crow Wing Energized, Second Harvest North Central Food Bank will again offer free food at the mall starting at 11 a.m. Monday, April 27, but only to those who did not receive food at the April 13 pop-up pantry.

A produce pop-up pantry is a traveling food shelf that delivers nutritious food directly to families in need, but Monday’s pop-up pantry at the Baxter mall will last that day only as long as the food Second Harvest supplies is available.


“For the majority of people that utilize a food shelf they have certain paperwork and certain requirements — income verification or they have to meet certain criteria to shop at a food shelf — whereas these pop-up pantries are very much ‘We’re taking you at your word,’” Stults said. “We’ve had to change it a little bit with the pandemic in that people are getting a box of pre-curated food. And then we’re loading that into their vehicles because we have all these volunteers that are willing to help,” Stults said.

More than 4.4 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and the problem is only expected to grow the longer businesses remain shuttered.

“We’ve seen in Brainerd that there is a large amount of people that are in need of just some additional food to get them month to month, and they don’t feel comfortable going to the food shelf where they don’t necessarily qualify,” Stults said.

The Grand Rapids-based Second Harvest North Central Food Bank’s objective is to make a greater impact on the people and communities they serve through the distribution of healthy nutritious foods.

“This will be our second one this month. We’ve done two this month just because we’ve seen that there’s been a higher need,” Stults said.

Second Harvest

Second Harvest has access to thousands of pounds of produce during the growing season of July through September. The abundance of produce is largely due to the Farm to Food Shelf Program that supports donations of produce grown in the state.

“We’ve seen people that we’ve not necessarily seen in the past utilizing this service,” Stults said of the produce pop-up pantry’s growing popularity in the age of the coronavirus.

Millions of pounds of produce that would otherwise go unsold are donated to the food banks in Minnesota and distributed out to food shelves and through direct distribution to people in need.


“We usually have about 300 households that we’re servicing. Just last month, we had 314 households that we gave food to,” Stults said. “We did end up having to turn away maybe 30 cars or so because we ran out of food.”

The produce pop-up pantry was inside the Westgate Mall for the past several months — that is until the coronavirus started making headlines and became a cause for concern.

“They’ve been very gracious in letting us have it inside the mall, and then just with everything that’s been going on and the mall being closed … we started having it in the parking lot where people are actually driving up, and we’re putting the food in their vehicles,” Stults said.

Produce pop-up pantries are like mini farmers markets where individuals and families gain access to fresh food they need to keep them healthy and strong, according to Second Harvest.

“I think at the last one we had apples and oranges and tomatoes. I think we’re going to be giving out hand sanitizer this time. … We had beans, rice, premade, like, meal kits, like, peanut butter, bread. In the past, we’ve had milk and eggs. It varies month to month,” Stults said.

That variety has ranged from meat, such as turkey drumsticks from a regional turkey supplier and frozen sausages, to frozen vegetables and frozen fruit, according to Stults.

She said of the April 13 pantry, “When most of our volunteers showed up at 8 or 8:30, there was maybe, like, 20 or 30 cars. ... It wrapped around into the (nearby) movie theater parking lot. We had Baxter and Brainerd police departments helping direct some of the traffic.”


Hunger is a serious issue for many people throughout Minnesota. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, it is estimated that 21,980 individuals throughout north-central Minnesota are food insecure, including 7,510 children.


“The reality is there’s a lot of people that show up really early who it's worth their time to sit and wait for a couple of hours just to make sure that they’re getting food,” Stults said.

Annually, Second Harvest distributes 4.2 million pounds, or 3.5 million meals, of food and grocery products directly to people and through member agencies.

“I think that this community — and I feel like every community probably feels this way — but this community is trying to do everything it can to make sure that everyone has the basic necessities that they need like food,” Stults said of the pop-up pantry volunteers. “We have just been really lucky, but there’s a lot of people in the community that are looking for ways to help.”

Produce pop-up pantry instructions

  • Stay in your car at all times and follow the signs.

  • Food is available to those that did not receive food at the April 13 pop-up pantry.

  • Carpooling is acceptable but watch for new policies starting in May.

  • One box of food per household per adult in the vehicle.

  • No restrooms will be available at the Monday, April 27 pop-up pantry.

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
What To Read Next
Get Local