More local chefs and caterers are dishing out free meals to go for local people in need at schools, homeless encampments and community organizations.

The program, Minnesota Central Kitchen, was inspired by the work of humanitarian and chef José Andrés. Initially a response to the COVID crisis, the program has grown so much that Second Harvest Heartland, the Brooklyn Park-based food bank that started the program in 2020, made it permanent the next year.

And it's no longer central, nor even limited to Minnesota; the program launched this month in Fargo, its first site outside Minnesota after expanding to Rochester in 2021.

That led Second Harvest to rename it Kitchen Coalition — a concept Second Harvest hopes will spread to food banks nationwide as the need for food assistance rises.

Robin Manthie, the program's managing director, said it's a win-win — supporting local businesses while using donations or donated food to get restaurant-quality, culturally specific meals to people in need.

"This model works so well," she said. "It's part of equity in fighting hunger."

Second Harvest started the program to put restaurant workers and caterers back to work when kitchens closed at the start of the pandemic, paying them to prepare meals for a growing number of people in need amid furloughs and layoffs.

Now Kitchen Coalition is working with 16 Twin Cities kitchens — most of which are owned by people of color — and 75 distribution organizations, and is on pace this year to top 4 million meals served since 2020.

The program's Rochester partner is Channel One Regional Food Bank, and in Fargo it's Great Plains Food Bank. All three food banks are part of the national Feeding America network of 200 food banks that distribute produce and groceries to food shelves.

Manthie hopes more food banks will join Kitchen Coalition to better serve people who can't prepare a meal on their own, either because they're in crisis, don't have access to a kitchen or aren't able to cook.

"It makes a lot of sense for food banks," she said.

At the University of Minnesota, the Campus Club — a nonprofit faculty club and event center — didn't have to lay off any of its 12 kitchen staffers when the U shut down and shifted to online learning early in the pandemic. It signed on with Kitchen Coalition.

"I've got an empty kitchen and staff that need to work," said Beth Jones, executive chef at Campus Club, which has dished out more than 181,000 meals since 2020. "It kept my staff employed."

Kitchen Coalition is a small part of Second Harvest's overall work. The program served 1.4 million meals last year, a fraction of the 113 million meals the food bank distributed in groceries to food shelves and other meal programs.

But Kitchen Coalition's prepared meals are more expensive. It will cost about $8.3 million this year to buy food and pay workers. Most of the funding comes from donations and corporations, though it also receives money from the state, federal government and Hennepin County.

A rising need

Other local nonprofits that serve prepared meals are seeing a higher need. Twin Cities Meals on Wheels is delivering 50% more meals than pre-pandemic, providing 1.7 million meals in 2022 — most of which are subsidized — to many seniors and people with disabilities.

"We haven't seen a drop-off [in need] in the pandemic," said Patrick Rowan, Meals on Wheels' executive director.

In Minneapolis, Loaves & Fishes served 4.6 million meals in 2022, more than three times the number it provided in 2019. It offered meals to go during the pandemic in place of the usual communal dining at churches, homeless shelters and other organizations — a new approach to distribution that offered anonymity for people reluctant to seek out help, said Kiley Benson, Loaves & Fishes' executive director.

"The barriers have been broken away," he said.

The need isn't easing yet. In 2022, more Minnesotans visited food shelves than in any other year on record, according to preliminary data.

At the U, Campus Club's kitchen was bustling last week as employees dished up 900 meals, scooping Ecuadorian chicken stew, tofu curry and meatloaf into to-go containers. Half the meals that Campus Club serves through Kitchen Coalition go to students, including international graduate students who don't qualify for food stamps. The other half are delivered to nonprofits for seniors and families.

"We want it to look like they just ordered it [from a restaurant]," Jones said as her colleagues added colorful garnishes to the dishes. "When we saw there was such a high need on campus … there are students depending on it."