The hallways of St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School on Wednesday were once again filled with teachers and young people.

Though class was not in session, the day offered its own lesson about the power of community.

About three dozen volunteers spent the morning at the school, packing bags of groceries for 115 families around St. Paul.

Tucked alongside the eggs, meat and pasta were neatly packed holiday treats — hot cocoa, candy canes and a wide variety of cookies.

Over the past several days, about a dozen neighbors who live near the school helped make more than 800 cookies to ensure that no student would spend holiday break without a special gift, baked with care.

"It's been so amazing to see this community step up," said Alicia Ekegren, a health and physical education teacher at Ramsey.

Ekegren started the community pantry in March, at the start of the pandemic. Back then, she and a few other teachers were collecting items in their own homes and vehicles and delivering them based on the needs they heard from their students.

Those needs continued to grow, particularly at the end of May, when area grocery stores were shuttered by the riots after George Floyd's killing.

The pantry moved into the school building, where two classrooms are filled with stacks of canned goods, diapers and cleaning products. Meat, dairy products and produce are sourced mostly from area food banks.

Each week, volunteers — including several Ramsey teachers — help deliver the bags to families.

"I never knew it was going to grow this big," Ekegren said. She often spends more than 20 hours a week stocking, organizing and running the pantry.

This week, she spent extra time making and writing notes on little packages of treats.

"It's all about these kids — this is our passion," she said. "And there is such a need. We can't stop."

John Gallagher, a sixth-grade English teacher at Ramsey, has been helping Ekegren with the pantry since its start.

Before the pandemic, Gallagher knew many of his students faced struggles at home and depended on the meals served at the schools; about 60% of the school's students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Through a federal program, schools are still offering free meals to all students, regardless of income level. But the Ramsey pantry can supplement that and serve the whole family — the bags are filled with items tailored to specific needs, Gallagher said.

"This is a lot more personable than standing in line at a food shelf," he said. And being able to deliver to his students offers the chance to connect beyond a screen.

"This year has been really hard for teachers," Gallagher said. "We're seeing and hearing so much more about our students' lives at home. This is a way we can really do something for them."

Former Ramsey students — now in high school — have stepped in to support the pantry, as have retired teachers, Macalester College students and even a girl's hockey team from Woodbury.

"A lot of people are looking for ways to help out right now," said Hailey Choinski, a 16-year-old at Central High School who spent her Wednesday morning loading up bags of groceries for delivery. "This is such a relatable thing — everyone needs groceries."

Ruth Mackenzie, who lives near the school, has been volunteering at the pantry for months.

She noticed the bags were always filled with a variety of staple items, but she couldn't help but think about the students who might be craving some holiday sweets this week.

It didn't take long to organize her prolific "baking brigade," she said.

On Wednesday, she looked down the hallway lined with bags and bags of packed groceries and goodies.

"What an incredible thing," she said.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440