Early Thursday afternoon, as temperatures hovered in the single digits, a food truck distributed free sandwiches and salads to a steady stream of homeless folks in downtown St. Paul. The fare hailed from an unusual source: the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The ready-to-eat meals were originally intended for airline travelers, who would normally nibble on the upscale eats en route to their destination. But after sitting unsold for up to 24 hours at more than two dozen outlets at MSP, the still-fresh meals were later redistributed to a hungry and grateful crowd on the capital city’s frigid streets.

It’s a routine that’s repeated three times a week, and it prevents the food from otherwise ending up in a landfill.

Launched in late summer, the program pairs the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Loaves and Fishes with HMSHost, which operates the Minnesota Wild Bar and Restaurant, O’Gara’s Bar and Grill, MSP-MKT grab-and-go outlets, Starbucks coffee shops, and other eateries at the airport.

Personnel at Loaves and Fishes pick up the packaged meals and pass them out to those in need throughout the Twin Cities through a variety of channels, including the popular street outreach food truck.

“I love that it’s fresh food and it’s not being wasted,” said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves and Fishes.

Many of the recipients who approached the food truck Thursday packed several meals in backpacks and shopping bags. Most came by foot, many of them from Mary Hall and Higher Ground St. Paul, part of the Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day complex nearby that provides services for the homeless and housing for the needy. One woman arrived swathed in a mint-green blanket that appeared to serve as a coat.

“This helps me get through the next couple of weeks,” said Clyde Bolden, who recently secured a room at the Dorothy Day complex. Another woman declared: “I love the Caesar salads!”

“Who wants a ham and cheese?” said Maes, who was helping staff the truck. “Do you want parfait with that? Vitamin water?”

Loaves and Fishes volunteer Vincent Vera said the frigid weather likely deterred some food recipients from showing up Thursday — during the summer 200 to 300 people usually line up for the meals.

“People are worrying, ‘Where’s my next meal?’ ” Vera said. “With the prepackaged meals, people can put them in their bags or their pockets. The need here is incredible.”

On Friday, Loaves and Fishes director of operations Kiley Benson was back at the airport loading dock beneath Terminal 1 commandeering a big white cargo van. He was met there by Butch Howard from HMSHost, who has helped spearhead the program on the airport side.

HMSHost operates restaurants at more than 120 airports worldwide, including 30 at MSP.

It operates similar distribution programs at airports elsewhere, donating some 1.5 million pounds of food in the United States and Canada last year alone.

“You have to have a full stomach to do anything,” Howard said. “That’s why we do this. The food is going to all the right places.”

Friday’s load included the usual sandwiches and salads, which are prepared daily at the airport, a cache of almonds, a big bag of carrots, a box of pita bread and some frozen chicken filets. Sometimes restaurants at MSP donate leftover food in bulk, which Loaves and Fishes uses for hot meals served at sites throughout the seven-county metro area.

Loaves and Fishes also picks up excess food from cafeterias (before they hit the serving line) at Best Buy and Medtronic headquarters and at the University of Minnesota. All told, the organization expects to provide 750,000 meals to the needy this year, up from 570,000 meals in 2016.

Maes said the group’s increased capacity to serve its constituents, as well as a growing need, has fueled the demand.

Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski said she “would like to see the program grow and has been encouraging other concessionaires to participate. We have interest from a couple of them, but they haven’t had an opportunity to figure out the logistics for their particular operations as of yet.”

Other operators at MSP, including Delaware North, with three restaurants, and OTG, with eight, have recently signed on to the program, according to the MAC, which owns and operates MSP.

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, the U.S. spends more than $162 billion growing, processing, and transporting food that is never eaten. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says more food reaches landfills than any other type of municipal solid waste.

“Honestly, I could spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week picking up food people don’t eat,” Benson said.