Three semis hauling 30,000 pounds of food pulled into the parking lot of Brooklyn Park Revive Church and volunteers began lugging the boxes of fresh vegetables, bread and other goods to tables in the church gym.
By 5 p.m. last Friday, the gym was transformed into a mini grocery store, complete with shopping carts and carry-out staff, and the first group of about 350 shoppers headed inside.
This routine, which happens the last Friday of most months, is among the largest one-day food distribution sites in Minnesota. More than 290,000 pounds of food passed through Revive’s doors last year alone, according to Second Harvest Heartland, which provides the groceries.
The project marked its 10th anniversary this year.
“As of today, we’ve done this 100 times,” said project coordinator Joe Lash, surveying the scene amid the buzz of conversation and clunk of boxes dropping into metal shopping carts. “It takes about 200 volunteers to make it all happen.”
Faith-based groups have long been at the forefront of hunger relief, providing everything from individual church food shelves to the many locations supported by nonprofits such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Service.
While year-round food shelves are widely known, there are also “community distribution centers” that offer food on a large scale, but limited-time basis. Of the roughly 20 centers similar to Revive, the Brooklyn Park church is among the largest.
“Thirty thousand pounds of food [in one day] is a lot,” said Jennie Meinz, agency relations manager for Second Harvest. “What’s impressive is that it’s been going on more than 10 years. It’s something people can count on. And it gives that atmosphere of having a grocery store.”
Faith groups must sign an agreement with Second Harvest that bars proselytizing during the giveaways, she said. But shoppers can “opt in” to a prayer should they be moved.
Marie Tatum was among those heading into the gym Friday with two laundry baskets ready to fill with groceries. She stopped first at the fresh meats table and pondered her choices. The variety is a big attraction because often food shelves don’t offer that, said Tatum, who is a regular at Revive.
“My mom used to come here, and I’m carrying on the tradition,” she said.
Tatum walked past tables topped by fresh salad fixings, apples, bananas, eggs, milk, snacks — even canned jalapeño peppers. By the time she was done, her laundry baskets were full. Volunteers carried her food to a shopping cart, out the door and loaded it into her car.
Another regular, Marquita Mosby, said she had volunteered to help set up the place earlier in the day, something she enjoys. She also enjoys the financial savings.
“All the fresh fruit, the condiments I don’t have to worry about buying,” she said. “And there’s no shaming. No questions asked. Everyone is so friendly, and there’s no stipulation for coming.”
‘A big turnaround’
Mosby and Tatum, like the others, had to register for the food earlier in the day, providing their name, address, number of people in their household and other basic information. After registering, everyone is given a number identifying the shopping group they will enter with later that afternoon.
Keeping the registration separate from the shopping ensures “everyone doesn’t show up at once,” said Revive Pastor Jeff Gagnon. When the program first started, he said, more than 500 people would line up along the street waiting to enter. About 350 people now come each Friday. Gagnon attributes the lower numbers to an improved economy.
But there’s still a huge food need. According to Second Harvest, Minnesotans visited food shelves 3,402,077 times in 2017 — the highest number in recorded history.
Gagnon admits that putting on such a production each month for 10 years can pose challenges. It becomes harder to get volunteers, and several volunteers now come from other churches. There’s wear and tear on church facilities.
By 9 p.m., however, the last customers are out the door. Volunteers break down hundreds of empty cardboard boxes, lift the pallets off the floor, clean up the place and prepare for a Saturday that could hold events ranging from youth basketball to a funeral.
Said Gagnon: “It’s a big turnaround, to go from a supermarket to a church again.”