Three days a week, a funky bus transformed into a kitchen-on-wheels parks in a Minneapolis or St. Paul neighborhood. Inside cooks whip up such entrees as stuffed green peppers or zucchini with brie cheese, while others drag out a sign saying, "Free Meal Here Tonight."
By 5 p.m., neighbors start mingling outside one of the most unconventional free-meal services in Minnesota. It's run by Sisters' Camelot, an equally offbeat nonprofit that has given away organic produce to low-income neighborhoods for years -- out of a different bus -- before launching mobile organic meals last month.
Organics isn't the only thing that sets it apart. There's no set schedule for where the bus goes. Staff decide day-to-day. Anyone, poor or rich, is welcome to walk up to the bus window and grab a plate. Its goal isn't just to feed the hungry, but to "build community" in the parks and street corners where the bus is parked.
"We're kind of out of the mainstream," said Rob Czernik, volunteer coordinator for Sisters' Camelot. "We don't check IDs or keep track of how often people come. We deal mainly with perishable foods. And we give people an opportunity to try something new."
Czernik was among about two dozen people relaxing on the lawn of Peavey Park in south Minneapolis this week, shortly after serving time. They dined on cheese quesadillas, stir-fried green and red peppers, seasoned rice and banana-raspberry cake.
The meals reflect the big donations of the week. In this case, it was more than 50 pounds of cheese curds and lots of green, yellow and red peppers. Two weeks ago, cooks were working with nearly 3,000 pounds of avocados and hundreds of watermelons.
"A couple days ago we made brie-stuffed mushrooms," said cook Clive North. "Yesterday was squash biscuits. We had gluten-free apricot sweetbread one day. That was delicious. ... It's a huge variety."
Giovanni Morocho and his wife, Lucy, happened to see the "free meal" sign as they walked to their apartment nearby. They were surprised to see people inside a bus handing out plates of food at the corner.
"It's a good thing," said Morocho. "There are people on this street who don't have food, who don't have anywhere to live."
Hannah Eastman, a University of Minnesota student who happened to be practicing soccer nearby, walked over with soccer ball in hand.
"I like this because it's that whole idea that you give back to the community, and it gives back to you," said Eastman. She wound up offering to volunteer for Sisters' Camelot after seeing it in action.
Inside the bus, workers cleared off the dirty plates with biodegradable soap, and their water was routed to a holding tank under the bus, where it would be emptied out in a dedicated drain at the office. On top of the bus was a "water bladder" that held the day's water. More environmentally friendly accents are in the works.
"We talked about converting the bus so it would run on vegetable oil," said Clay Hansen, one of the cooks on this day.
Hansen, like many workers here, does not have a traditional résumé. His most recent job had been a bicycle rickshaw driver in Montana. He joined Sisters' Camelot, "because I wanted to do something meaningful with my life, like feed people."
Unlike many meals programs, Sisters' Camelot receives few donations from foundations or government. Its tiny $130,000 annual budget comes from fundraisers and the footwork of dozens of canvassers who go door to door seeking donations. Its handful of "staff" work other jobs to pay the bills.
That said, it distributed more than 1.7 million pounds of food -- from pumpkins to pineapples -- last year. The produce comes from Albert's Organics in Mounds View, Co-op Partners in St. Paul and some farmers markets. The fruits and vegetables are often surplus or otherwise-good produce that had been packaged with damaged fruit or vegetables, said Czernik.
Harry Morford, business manager at Albert's Organics, said his company has a good working relationship with Sisters' Camelot.
"They're unique in how they do business," said Morford. "They drive here with the bus, and then run a conveyor belt up to their windshield [which slides open]. No one else does that."
The Sisters' Camelot meal bus and its so-called Foodshare bus, which has delivered fresh fruits and vegetables for more than 10 years, have caught the attention of Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon.
"They started as a grass-roots, under-the-radar effort," said Gordon. "It's like they're growing up now."
Czernik recalls when Sisters' Camelot operated out of a coffee shop because it didn't have money to rent space. It now has garage space in south Minneapolis and is even toying with buying a building, he said.
"I don't think any of us imagined where we would be now," said Czernik. "We're a different organization than we were 10 years ago. And we'll continue to change."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511