These free meals-on-wheels serve the hungry poor in a jiffy

Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a new anti-hunger group, brings free meals to the streets.

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Skip Valusek handed out food outside a transitional housing complex in Minneapolis last week. Five nights a week, volunteers distribute food as part of the Mobile Loaves and Fishes project.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Several nights a week, a refrigerator truck parks in front of different apartment buildings where low-income and homeless folks live. Volunteers jump out, pull open the truck's sides and wait for customers to grab free take-out meals.

No shame of eating in a dining hall. No wait. It's called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, and the new nonprofit is the latest front in battling hunger in Minnesota.

"I like that you can get a meal ... and then bring it to your own private sanctuary, where ever that may be,'' said Stephen Cross, who grabbed a meal-to-go at a Salvation Army center in Minneapolis last week. "I love it.''

Mobile Loaves and Fishes -- which is not affiliated with the longstanding Loaves and Fishes dining program -- was started last spring to fill gaps in hunger services not met by traditional meals programs and food shelves, said Mark McLellan, a St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church member who learned about the concept from his father in Texas.

"The great thing about this model is it's agile, you can get in and out quickly,'' said McLellan. "Not that we're in any hurry to drive off. But while a soup kitchen is in a standard location, we can change our schedule. We can get out to where the needs are, quickly.''

Another advantage, said McLellan, is that it's a great way to get volunteers into neighborhoods they might never otherwise see, and to make connections with people.

"We've taken folks from Edina, St. Louis Park, south Minneapolis,'' said McLellan, noting that most come from Joan of Arc and its partner, Knox Presbyterian Church, of Minneapolis.

"It's a great way to get them engaged in poverty in a nonthreatening way.''

130 meals, 20 minutes

To watch Mobile Loaves and Fishes in action, it's important to move fast. Its silver truck pulled up in front of Salvation Army Harbor Lights building one day last week at 6 p.m. By 6:20, the staff had handed out all of its 130 meals to the steady stream of men and women who stopped by in spite of the raging heat.

Cross was among them. Volunteers offered him a choice of turkey, roast beef or peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, a fresh orange, a bottle of ice-cold water, and a choice of different types of chips.

Cross, 46, said he used to live in a tent under a bridge, but he's now getting his life back on track. He lives in transitional housing down the street, but his budget is lean. Being able to grab a meal -- plus on this day a package of cotton socks and razors -- stretches the budget, he said.

"It's very convenient,'' said Cross. "Sometimes you don't have time to sit down and eat.''

And what about those razors and socks?

The volunteers -- among about 250 on the project -- say they boldly recruit surplus toiletries and other supplies at hotels and other locations.

"Last time I was at my dentist, she gave me about 75 toothbrushes and about 50 tubes of toothpaste,'' said volunteer Richard Kemanczykafka.

While the clients at Salvation Army are mainly single men and women, it was parents and children who flocked to the truck the next day at the Little Earth housing complex in Minneapolis. Darlene Fairbanks, who runs a women's group at Little Earth focusing on nutrition, said she appreciates that there's fresh fruit, cold water and healthy sandwiches.

"The residents love it,'' she said. "They don't have to show ID. They don't have to show anything. They just get the stuff.''

The history

Mobile Loaves and Fishes was started in Austin, Texas, a decade ago. It makes no pretense of solving the world's hunger programs, said McLellan, but it does see itself as one more tool for helping those in need.

Minnesota is among six states that have started the project.

McLellan said it took several years to get the project off the ground here. The Texas nonprofit donated the new silver refrigerator truck that now roams Minneapolis streets. Joan of Arc is the local sponsor, signing all the legal agreements.

And Knox Presbyterian is an operating partner, offering its new kitchen facilities to prepare the meals and volunteers to distribute them.

Knox Pastor Pete Della Santina said it was almost spooky how Mobile Loaves and Fishes ended up calling Knox, which had just remodelled its kitchen and needed a charitable project.

"I was literally praying at my desk for guidance when the phone rang,'' said Della Santina.

Most days, volunteers meet at Knox Church for the food preparation, and then head out to one of about a dozen places the truck now visits. They serve more than 100 meals each day.

But the mobile food service is looking for additional sites, such as housing complexes, parks, businesses or other locations where lower income residents frequent, said McLellan. He encourages interested groups to contact the organization.

"It will help us expand our relationships in the community.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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