A meal from a stranger may have helped save Franco Adamo-Benguerra's life.

After being diagnosed with HIV and skin cancer and suddenly losing his spouse, the 68-year-old St. Paul man said he stopped eating — grief-stricken and nauseous from the medication and chemotherapy.

Then he heard about a Minneapolis nonprofit that delivers free meals to Minnesotans with life-threatening illnesses. The food from Open Arms of Minnesota not only bolstered Adamo-Benguerra's nutritional intake, it gave him something to look forward to each week as volunteers dropped off food at his apartment and lingered to chat.

"These were people I didn't know who cared," the retired grocery store manager said. "Without them, I'm not sure I'd be here today."

On Tuesday, Open Arms will announce the fall opening of a new St. Paul site to relieve crowding at its Minneapolis headquarters, caused at least partly by rising demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit is holding a $6.8 million capital campaign to rehab a former office building near St. Paul Downtown Airport.

The shipping and distribution center will include a commercial kitchen and help the nonprofit boost the number of free meals to people across Minnesota and — for the first time — western Wisconsin.

The number of seriously ill people served by Open Arms has been growing, especially during the pandemic when home-delivered meals became a lifeline for those with COVID or at high risk of complications. Its freezers in Minneapolis are jam-packed, the offices are crammed and the kitchen has run out of room for volunteers to package meals.

Having a second kitchen in the east metro will allow Open Arms to expand its service into Wisconsin and nearly double the number of meals it serves each week, from about 16,000 meals now to 30,000 meals in 2023.

"We've experienced a ton of growth during the entire COVID pandemic just because the need increased so much," CEO Leah Hébert Welles said. "We're outgrowing the building."

For years, Open Arms served only Twin Cities residents. Two years ago, the nonprofit extended its service area outside the metro, shipping frozen meals statewide — right in the middle of the pandemic.

"That really accelerated the need for it," Hébert Welles said. "There are people all over the state of Minnesota who have life-threatening illnesses and need help."

No other organization in Minnesota offers free medically tailored, locally prepared meals developed by registered dietitians, Hébert Welles said. Someone with cardiac issues, for instance, may get beef stroganoff with controlled levels of salt and fat.

When Adamo-Benguerra was receiving chemotherapy and on medication, he was unable to keep most food down until Open Arms provided items like yogurt and saltine crackers. Four years later, he now savors chicken Parmesan and sloppy Joes.

""We all know somebody who has been sick and who needed help," Hébert Welles said.

Food for all

As with grocery shoppers, Open Arms has weathered rising food prices and is spending about 20% more on food this year.

About 6,000 volunteers a year assist Open Arms' 70 employees, delivering and packaging meals or working at one of its five farms in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Afton, which grow 15,000 pounds of fresh vegetables and produce a year.

On Friday, staff members bumped into each other in the frenzied kitchen as more than a dozen volunteers packaged and assembled thousands of trays of chicken ramen, vegetarian jambalaya and other frozen meals. Since the kitchen was full, a group of volunteers spilled out into the hallway.

For the first time, Open Arms is working with community chefs to develop culturally specific menus for Hmong, East African and Latino clients — part of a broader trend of food shelves and food programs adding culturally relevant foods.

"One of the things we talk about a lot in Minnesota is comfort food, and then we just assume comfort food means the same thing to everybody," Hébert Welles said. "Critical illnesses affect all communities and it's really hard to find culturally specific meals."

Open Arms will celebrate Tuesday its 10 millionth meal, served over nearly four decades. But Hébert Welles is looking ahead, with plans to deliver more than 1 million meals next year to 4,500 people. About 80% of clients are low-income.

"People who are sick and need help are often food-insecure," she said. "They should get good food that helps them get better."

Adamo-Benguerra's cancer is now in remission and he's cooking his own meals, with Open Arms supplementing what he can buy on his fixed income. What's more, the volunteers who drop by once a week are now good friends.

"I get excited to see them," he said. "It's definitely needed."


To volunteer, donate or to sign up for meals from Open Arms of Minnesota, go to openarmsmn.org.