Each apple, loaf of bread and slab of ribs that Audra Koel selected from tables in the church sanctuary brought her one grocery basket closer to the end.

For the past four years, the 48-year-old Coon Rapids resident has spent most of her Friday nights at Good Shepherd Covenant Church in Blaine for a hot meal and fresh groceries.

But last Friday marked the last supper for Good Shepherd and its food distribution project, Manna Market. With a shrinking and aging congregation, the 80-member church is closing next month. And the unusually large bounty before Koel — tables stacked high with every pantry item left in the church — signaled the coming loss.

“I wasn’t looking forward to tonight because I know this is it,” said Koel, adding that she depends on the biweekly food shelf for fresh produce to feed her household of six. “I’m just going to have to go without unless another church steps in.”

Lacking resources or volunteers, a growing number of small churches across the metro area are closing food shelves, leaving other nonprofits to pick up the hunger-relief slack.

It’s a compelling shift, given the formative role churches once played in getting food programs started, said Michelle Heerey, Director of Field Services for Second Harvest Heartland, the Twin Cities’ biggest food bank.

“That’s where food pantries were birthed. That’s where this movement started, is church congregations saying let’s help feed our hungry neighbors,” Heerey said.

In the seven-county metro area, 240 nonprofit groups partner with Second Harvest to run food programs. Forty-seven are churches. And so far this year, five have ended their food distributions, with three in Anoka County alone, Heerey said.

In Andover, Refuge of Hope, a 100-member Pentecostal church, closed its weekly food shelf in May after five years because of a lack of leadership and the decision to focus on other ministries.

“There wasn’t anyone from the church available to step in,” said the Rev. Ron Thompson. “We had people who were very disappointed in us for ending it, but we really didn’t have a choice.”

The weekly food distribution at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul closed in 2008 after the church merged with St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Minneapolis to form Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. The evening food shelf was then taken over by Pilgrim Baptist Church, which now distributes twice monthly.

“Our congregation doesn’t have younger members anymore,” said the Rev. James Wilson of Holy Trinity. “Our membership is getting older and isn’t as strong now.”

Leap of faith

Starting Manna Market, a pick-your-own style food distribution that focuses on fresh, perishable groceries, required an act of faith at Good Shepherd.

It takes 120 volunteers to run the market — several dozen more than attend the church, said Bonnie Randall, the church’s ministries coordinator, who helped organize the market.

“If the number of volunteers was a deciding factor of opening or not, we would have never opened,” she said.

Since it first started dishing out groceries in 2010, the church has relied mostly on volunteers from outside the congregation to helped distribute more than 3.1 million pounds of food.

Preparation for each market begins days in advance, with church members clearing out the sanctuary pews to make room for tables and set out food for clients.

A delivery truck from Second Harvest hauls groceries to the church Friday morning. Volunteers also rescue fresh fare from Target, Cub Foods and nearby schools — food that would normally end up in the trash, Randall said.

For Randall, whose parents were founding members of the church in 1962, the final market marked a sad farewell.

“It’s like a divorce or a death,” she said. “We’re not sure what we’ll do on our Friday nights now.”

Final supper

An hour before the final Friday meal began, a line had already formed in the Good Shepherd parking lot.

Volunteers and diners packed the sanctuary and dining hall and exchanged numbers on prayer request cards, promising to keep in touch. More than 230 households passed through for food to pack their pantries.

“We’re willing to freeze out here for an hour just to get in the door,” said Jill Wangen, who has been coming to the distributions for three years. “Everybody is family here.”

The loss of the produce and meat from the food shelf will hit the hardest, she added.

As they waited in line for dinner, other diners like Koel wiped tears away and thought about the food uncertainties of the future.

“Buying fruits and veggies is expensive, and I can only get them at Aldi, if at all,” she said. “We’ve gotten cases of bananas here before, and I made two dozen loaves of banana bread and froze it to make it last for months.”

Church members and volunteers said they would like to see the food program change hands, rather than phase out altogether.

“Our hope is that someone will step in and fill the gap,” Randall said.