The nonprofit Loaves & Fishes served a record 1 million free meals to needy Minnesotans this year, nearly one-third more than 2017.
Its leaders point to "stubbornly high" need across the state even in this time of relative prosperity. Other social service charities — including food banks and homeless shelters — also have observed higher levels of need.
"It breaks my heart," said Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Cathy Maes. "I always carry around a list of dining sites so I can hand it out. I tell people, 'Here is where you can get your next meal.' "
But Maes said she also is touched by the generosity of volunteers, donors, her staff and board of directors who prioritize helping others in need.
Maes served a symbolic golden plate of food to a woman at Holy Rosary Church in Minneapolis to mark the 1 millionth meal last week.
Loaves & Fishes, started in 1982, is the largest free meal program in the state that's open to the public. The nonprofit serves more than 2,700 meals each day at a variety of dining sites. Volunteers in vans also distribute meals as part of its street outreach program, and the group provides after-school and summer meals and snacks for children.
In the summer, the nonprofit operates a 1-acre farm next to Peace Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids so it can infuse its meals with fresh, homegrown greens, fruits and vegetables.
Loaves & Fishes further expanded the scope of its work this year with a new program called the HUB, which helps small charities feed their clients healthier food at lower prices.
Loaves & Fishes crews pick up bulk amounts of food from Minnesota's largest food bank, Second Harvest Heartland, divide it into smaller quantities and redistribute to nonprofits including women's shelters, recovery programs and homeless shelters.
"We've become a middleman," Maes said. "These nonprofits were not able to use Second Harvest because of the 500-pound requirement. It's now a lot more flexible and nimble and they get a lot of variety."
It's also saving those charities thousands of dollars in grocery bills.