As a light snow fell outside, volunteers inside Shiloh Cares Food Shelf handed out to-go containers of BBQ chicken and beef lasagna on Thursday, part of 500 prepared meals the north Minneapolis organization dishes out each week thanks to Minnesota Central Kitchen.

Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of seven food banks in Minnesota, launched the effort at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to respond to the sudden need for help, partnering with nonprofits, caterers and restaurants to prepare the meals and drawing inspiration from the work of humanitarian and chef José Andrés. On Thursday, the Brooklyn Park-based nonprofit reached a new milestone: 2 million meals in less than two years.

"A lot of times, our communities go unnoticed," said Jalilia Abdul-Brown, executive director of Shiloh Cares Food Shelf at Shiloh Temple International Ministries. "But they heard our cry and they actually came to help us with healthy meals."

Minnesota Central Kitchen distributes some 25,000 meals a week to homeless encampments, schools and nonprofits to assist a growing number of Minnesotans in need. But it's about much more than food — helping address broader issues from mental health to violence prevention, Abdul-Brown said.

"There's power in chicken," she added. "You can't offer someone help if they're hungry. So if you don't get to their basic needs first, they're not even going to hear you to get help. … If you don't have any food to eat, you're going to rob to get it. If you don't have any food to eat, you're going to kill to get it."

Minnesota Central Kitchen has also put 100 chefs, caterers and restaurant workers back to work at a critical time. At Cargill, the west metro corporation's employees are still mostly working remotely so cooking up Thursday's mac and cheese and other meals for Shiloh Cares Food Shelf put its corporate kitchen staff to work.

The program pays kitchen staff for their time and ingredients, though they don't make a profit. Operating costs of about $7 million a year have been covered with funding from Hennepin County, the state departments of education and human services, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, foundations, donors and corporations like Cargill, which announced a $500,000 donation on Thursday in addition to a previous $1 million grant.

Some kitchens have reopened fully in the pandemic and dropped out of Minnesota Central Kitchen, while other organizations have joined; 15 kitchens are involved now, from original partner Chowgirls Catering to Appetite For Change in north Minneapolis and Oasis Market and Deli in the Midtown Global Market. About half the kitchens are owned or led by people of color and they've boosted cooking up culturally specific meals, said Robin Manthie, managing director of Minnesota Central Kitchen.

While Second Harvest started the program to respond to the emergency crisis at the start of COVID, by last June, the nonprofit signed off on making it permanent. Manthie plans to expand it beyond the Twin Cities and dish up more meals — 1.4 million — in 2022.

"It was the spark of crisis that allowed this to come together," Manthie said.

The need isn't subsiding. The state's 350 food shelves are on pace to end 2021 with 3.7 million visits, just below the record 3.8 million in 2020, and the number of Minnesotans relying on food stamps has increased from 2020 to 2021. While Minnesota's unemployment rate is inching down to pre-pandemic levels, soaring rents and high inflation driving up the cost of everything from gasoline to groceries are weighing on low-income residents who likely were financially strained before the pandemic.

In north Minneapolis, Shiloh Cares Food Shelf ran out of 250 meals within 20 minutes Wednesday. Often, Arnetta Phillips and other volunteers warm up the meals there and sit down with those they serve, eating together and chatting like a family.

"They're grateful," Phillips said. "They look forward to it."