Restaurants were on the front lines of philanthropy long before the pandemic hit.

The dining industry is often the first stop when nonprofit groups are in fundraising mode, and chefs and restaurateurs consistently donate time, money and expertise.

Now, despite being squeezed by shutdowns, capacity restrictions and a jittery customer base, that charitable impulse has only intensified as Twin Cities restaurants lead the way, especially on the growing issue of food insecurity.

The need is definitely there. Second Harvest Heartland reports that one in nine Minnesotans experiences hunger. Just last year, the regional food bank provided assistance to more than a half-million people.

So restaurants are doing what they have always done: stepping up to the plate. The examples of generosity, all infused with compassion and ingenuity, are seemingly endless.

It's Brian and Sarah Ingram of their aptly named Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul, turning their restaurant's kitchen into a community kitchen and feeding thousands of people a week, for free, during the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd.

It's Cafe Racer Kitchen chef/owner Luis Patino ramping up his already extraordinary Break Bread Free Meal effort — which serves free meals on the last Monday of each month — by making free meals available to anyone who calls his Minneapolis restaurant.

And it's Savory Bake House co-owners Sandra Sherva and Max Okray, who kept their south Minneapolis bakery closed last summer and instead focused on making breakfasts and dinners for people living in encampments in nearby city parks.

At the center of much of this philanthropic activity is Second Harvest Heartland and its Minnesota Central Kitchen initiative.

The prepared meals program is a first for Second Harvest, and combines its enormous food rescue operations and fundraising prowess with a diverse group of dining industry players. The result? Delicious and nutritious restaurant-quality meals that are routed to Minnesotans via a distribution network of Second Harvest partners.

The output has been nothing short of astonishing, with more than 1.32 million meals produced since its inception in mid-March 2020.

The healing powers of food

Minnesota Central Kitchen started as a hastily formed collaboration between Chowgirls Catering, the Bachelor Farmer, Restaurant Alma, Second Harvest, the Good Acre food hub and the meal distribution organization Loaves and Fishes. The partnership moved quickly to leverage donated ingredients from restaurants emptying their pantries as Gov. Tim Walz closed the state's dining rooms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was people saying, 'What can we do?' because it's in their bones to serve people and cook food," said Emily Paul, director of Minnesota Central Kitchen. "They have the facilities, and the workforce, and the desire to serve. Within a few days, we had produced 2,500 meals. We were building the plane while we were flying it."

That first kitchen eventually grew to 14, and now there are nine facilities working together to turn out 20,000 meals per week. The facilities run the gamut, from a community college to a natural foods co-op. They're staffed by nearly 200 Twin Cities restaurant workers, all earning a paycheck after being furloughed by their employers.

"It takes a village, no joke," said Paul. "This is a community that sees the power that food has to heal people, to break down barriers and to bring us together. That's why they do what they do. They couldn't, as a community, stand on the sidelines and hope that everything will be OK."

Looking ahead, Paul definitely sees Minnesota Central Kitchen moving beyond its initial response to the pandemic crisis.

"Prepared meal needs are real," she said. "They existed before COVID, they became acute during COVID and they will exist after COVID. Every single one of our partners has said that they want to keep doing this. They've all said, 'This has been transformative to our business, our staff and our values. Going forward, we want to bake this into our company.' "

Feeding Minnesota's tribal communities

One of those busy Minnesota Central Kitchen partners was the Indigenous Food Lab at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. The Native foodways education and training center is part of the nonprofit arm of the Sioux Chef, the groundbreaking work of Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson.

The Sioux Chef's 2020 narrative mirrors that of many others: The pandemic pretty much shut down their for-profit catering business (their Owamni restaurant is opening on the downtown Minneapolis riverfront this spring). Then George Floyd was killed.

"Homelessness was exploding everywhere around us, and we started talking to people about how we could use this kitchen to alleviate some of that hunger," said Thompson. "There's a lot of suffering. It's really scary, and a huge blight on our nation."

Their solution was to spend the summer months sending hundreds of meals out the door every day.

"Then we started moving toward how we could feed tribal communities," said Thompson.

That involved creating frozen meals — up to 10,000 per week — that cater to the needs of nine tribal communities across the state. Sherman and his team cook with Indigenous ingredients, and their menus change with the seasons. Recent dishes have included bison meatloaf with roasted squash, bison tamales with black beans, smoked duck pozole, fried wild rice with cranberry meatballs and walleye cakes with pepitas pesto and root vegetables.

"It's so humbling to be part of this, and we're so grateful to have built a team of primarily Indigenous people," Thompson said. "It's been exhausting, and challenging, in so many ways. But really rewarding."

While the program is still operating in crisis mode, Thompson said they're also looking ahead.

"The future of this is multifaceted," she said. "We have a cool program going with the Prairie Island Indian community where we're working to train their staff so they can do this meal production themselves. The recipes, the logistics. We're creating an entrepreneurial generator, because every tribal community is interested in these resources."

A grassroots effort

When the pandemic closed Minnesota's public schools last March, Mike Willenbring, chef/co-owner of Manger Restaurant and Wine Bar, took a look at the elementary school near his Bayport restaurant. He discovered that 40% of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

"That was pretty eye-opening," he said. "That's when I knew that there was a need right here, in this community."

That led Willenbring and his wife and business partner, Nicole Willenbring, to do what they do best: feed people. A banner went up outside the restaurant announcing free lunches, and a cooler on the restaurant's patio was stocked with uncomplicated grab-and-go meals, no questions asked.

"We wanted to do it in a way that wouldn't make people feel awkward," said Mike Willenbring. "It was supercool because we saw a lot of the same families come in every day, and they'd knock on the window and wave to us, and say 'Thank you.' "

The kitchen's inventory determined the menu, but the format usually included a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a cookie, bag of chips or other snack.

Others quickly rallied to the cause. Customers donated money to help cover the Willenbrings' costs. Local businesses contributed, too; the folks at Candyland in nearby Stillwater regularly supplied apples, popcorn and other goodies.

Manger ended up supplying about 800 lunches over a two-month period, and the Willenbrings discovered that their generosity did not go unnoticed.

"We ended up getting an uptick in takeout business, because people wanted to support us," said Mike Willenbring. "That wasn't our intention, but it helped us during a difficult time and also allowed us to keep doing the lunches. I can't say that 2020 was a great year, by any means. But it made us realize what our priorities should be, and need to be."

Looking ahead

As the pandemic continues, so do restaurant-driven efforts to combat food insecurity.

One example is the Steller Union Family Meals Project. The just-announced partnership, between the Steller Kindness Project and chef Yia Vang, will allow consumers to participate in a unique buy-one/give-one food drive.

When diners order a family-style meal from Vang's Union Hmong Kitchen, the St. Paul restaurant will donate an identical meal to a family in need.

Deliveries began March 27 and will be managed by volunteers from the Steller Kindness Project, which was founded in 2017 by Minneapolis hair salon owner Katie Steller. (Steller is also behind the Red Chair Project, which provides haircuts and supplies to people experiencing homelessness.)

"Katie and I are looking forward to collaborating on this," Vang said in a statement. "I want to honor the words my dad often repeats: 'When we say something is mine, we have less. When we say something is ours, we have more.' If we expand our definition of family to include our neighbors, we all have more."