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Soup kitchen reopens doors for daily to-go meals after busy year fighting hunger

Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd saw many first-timers because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Brainerd-based nonprofit stopped offering sit-down meals last year, but the organization recently resumed daily to-go meals almost a year later.

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Jeff Lenz (left), Bonnie Dunker and Lisa Lenz fill trays with food for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen Executive Director Shannon Mills is glad to see more people show up lately at the organization’s Oak Street facilities, although not for reasons one may think.

The Brainerd-based nonprofit opened back up last week for daily meals at the soup kitchen. The organization switched in March 2020 from serving to offering to-go meals for those in need, before the building closed its doors to the public that month as a precaution.

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Sara Larson (left) and Jaden Hayes get hot meals on a table outside of the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“They’re to-go meals and so they get the meals outside or at the door,” Mills said of this spring’s resumption of daily meals.

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She said first-timers showed up for help due to food insecurity, and guests had “quadrupled” after businesses closed and unemployment rose last year at the start of the pandemic.

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“We were handing out soup and grocery bags of food on Wednesdays. And then on Saturdays, individuals could come at lunchtime and get two to-go meals per person,” Mills said of what the soup kitchen did after March of last year and up until last week.

What was in the grocery bag depended upon what could be acquired from the food bank, the grocery store and donations. Between 130 to 140 bags were handed out weekly, according to Mills, and recipients did not need to answer questions or provide any proof of need.

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Carol Penner (left), Jeff Lenz, Bonnie Dunker and Lisa Lenz fill trays with food for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“We had people come that normally don’t come to the soup kitchen,” Mills said of the guests, which she said included senior citizens afraid to venture out and shop for themselves because they were at greater risk if diagnosed with COVID-19.

“The beauty of the soup kitchen is that we don't have financial barriers,” Mills said.

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Last year, guests could remain in their vehicles or they were asked by soup kitchen officials to social distance themselves from one another in the parking lot while waiting for their numbers to be called by a volunteer to receive a bag of food.

“The county has been housing homeless individuals in a hotel since the beginning of the pandemic. And they are going to be done housing those individuals here shortly because their funding is up for housing them,” Mills said. “ … And so we knew as soon as they were done housing the homeless individuals that we needed to have daily meals for that population.”

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Sara Larson sets meals out on a table outside of the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Mills said the last day the county would take in the homeless and put them in a temporary shelter was Friday, April 23. The last day they would be permitted to stay in a hotel — before the funding for the lodging costs would run out — would be April 30, according to Mills.

“We were actually giving them grocery bags of food. They were being housed in a hotel, and they had a fridge and microwave, so we were getting them food,” Mills said.

It wasn’t only those in extreme poverty or without permanent shelter who benefited from the food shelf’s offerings.

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“There were individuals and households that maybe lost their jobs or got their hours cut, yet they were still making too much in unemployment to get some of the other kinds of food assistance, like from food shelves or government assistance,” Mills said.

Mills cited a fast-food employee whose work hours were cut but still made too much money to qualify for food stamps, so the worker turned to the soup kitchen for help. Now, some restaurants have resumed sit-down dining and are offering more hours to employees.

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Trays are filled with food at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“We kind of go along with the guidelines restaurants have right now. And because we’re primarily operated by volunteers, it’s just easier and safer for us to not have people come into the building yet,” Mills said of the timeline to resume sit-down meals at its building.

The Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen distributed more than 155,000 pounds of food during the pandemic, according to Mills. She said the nonprofit ordered about 10 times more food from the food bank every month during the pandemic compared to before the start of the pandemic.

RELATED: Need for nutrition assistance is 'astronomical' as pandemic stretches on

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Chalk on wall welcomes back volunteers and states the rules Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“It’s really exciting that we were able to purchase that much food — and receive that much food and donations from people — to give that much food out. It is sad the financial impact the pandemic did have on people was such that they needed to come to get food,” Mills said.

Mills said the soup kitchen welcomes donations, which are tax-deductible, particularly financial donations rather than donations of nonperishable food. For more information on the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen, visit sharingbread.com or call 218-829-4203.

Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen

  • What: Free food assistance.

  • When: 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

  • Where: 923 Oak St., Brainerd.

  • Donations: Mail checks to P.O. Box 632, Brainerd, MN 56401.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

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Jeff Lenz (left), Bonnie Dunker and Lisa Lenz fill trays with food for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

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Jeff Lenz (left), Bonnie Dunker and Lisa Lenz fill trays with food for distribution Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

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