Pop-up food shelf

Volunteer-run distribution sites fill in gaps as hunger rises

give away vegetables on MCAD’s campus
Stephani Pescitelli and Erin West give away vegetables on MCAD’s campus on July 21. In the building behind them, other volunteers assembled custom grocery packages for families. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

A line of families stood in sections outside a teal and pink building on the Minneapolis College of Art and Design campus on July 7. Masked volunteers efficiently sorted and distributed donations of food and supplies as children played in the parking lot or sat under the shade of adjacent trees.

Started in mid-June by a Whittier artist collective known as the People’s Library, this site is one of dozens of food shelves and distribution centers that have popped up organically around the Twin Cities area since March. Mainly run by volunteers or through loose collaborations with local businesses or nonprofits, community members have come together to support those hit hardest by pandemic-driven unemployment, chronic poverty and the civil unrest following George Floyd’s killing.

Pet food is being collected at the Lyndale Animal Hospital, meals are being served on Tuesdays at MLK Park in Kingfield and volunteers are stocking supply tents at homeless sanctuaries in Lyndale Farmstead and Kenwood parks. Established food shelves in the area say the pop-ups have been pivotal in bringing aid to various parts of the city, and their smaller sizes have been especially important in the effort to keep social distance.

Information about the food shelves is typically spread by word of mouth, on social media and through websites like the Twin Cities Mutual Aid map, which pinpoints places around the cities that are accepting donations or volunteers. The map also indicates what goods are needed and where, with details usually updated daily.

Nancy Hicks, a volunteer coordinator with the People’s Library, said the MCAD distribution center originally came about in response to helping the Eat Street restaurant Pimento Jamaican Kitchen deal with an influx of donations after it started accepting and distributing food and supplies on May 28. A spokesperson with Pimento said the restaurant is currently scaling down its efforts as the supply distribution was part of a temporary relief effort.

For the People’s Library, Hicks said, it was a little hectic at first. Coordinating volunteers, distributing what goods they had and navigating language barriers were problems the team had to troubleshoot. But as more volunteers joined, many of whom had volunteered at similar sites before, coordination became easier and wait times shrunk.

People’s Library
Bethany Johnson has been a member of the People’s Library since her sophomore year at MCAD. Johnson graduated in 2018 and the group, which started as a radical book club, has become more focused on community engagement in recent years. Photos by Isaiah Rustad

Looking back, Hicks said with a laugh, “We weren’t 100% sure what we were doing.” Now a month in, they’ve been able to adjust though they’re still ironing out the creases.

Although most of the pop-ups work independently, Hicks said, the People’s Library has been working to form long-term relationships with farmers markets and local eateries like Penny’s Coffee and Provision Community Restaurant, which have donated baked goods. The team also coordinates with other distribution spots — sharing produce and other perishables and making sure to be open on alternating days.

“It’s really important this sort of support can continue because Minneapolis has such a crisis [with] housing and support,” Hicks said. “And it’s only increased because of COVID.”

After an initial spike in aid and support, Hicks said, the number of donations has been dropping in recent weeks even though need has not gone away. More expensive goods like shampoo, feminine products and dental hygiene supplies are always in demand but can be more costly to buy in bulk.

Since mid-July, volunteers at the MCAD site moved away from only distributing meal and supply kits and have been printing out checklists with grocery items listed in English, Somali and Spanish, so families can choose additional items they need rather than receive some items they don’t.

Although this is more work for the volunteers, Hicks said, it results in less waste and helps them accommodate cultural and dietary restrictions.

People’s Library
Community members wait in line to get food from the People’s Library on July 21.

More in need

At more established food distribution centers, the current need hasn’t been this drastic since the Great Depression, said Elizabeth Cooper, spokesperson for Second Harvest Heartland.

Since March, the nonprofit has been supplying goods to pop-ups and food shelves around the Twin Cities and is anticipating Minnesota food shelves will see a 65% increase in demand through the remainder of 2020 and into next year.

Cooper said the collaboration with pop-up food shelves has been pivotal, especially in a pandemic where people need to be socially distant. Their help has made it possible to reach more people in need.

“We have seen a record number of donations coming in [since March], which is good,” Cooper said. “We need every dollar.”

Part of the work also comes with destigmatizing the act of asking for help, especially when it comes to accepting food, she said. Acknowledging and accepting help is a sign of strength and trust in the community, and without addressing hunger, existing inequalities can worsen.

“We know that hunger is connected to a wide variety of health issues, so really, if we let this hunger crisis continue, it is going to deepen and broaden the impact of the pandemic,” she said. “As a community, we can’t let that happen.”

Alex Richardson started volunteering for the Lyndale Farmstead Sanctuary in June, when people experiencing homelessness first moved into Lyndale Farmstead Park. (The Park Board has voted to limit the size of encampments and require permits, and the sanctuary’s future is uncertain.)

Although he works full time, Richardson spends a couple hours every evening at the park coordinating volunteers, distributing food and supplies and facilitating activities.

He said it feels good to see people come together and fill the immediate needs of those in the sanctuary, but he’s frustrated that the government is not the one providing direct aid.

“We shouldn’t have to do these things,” he said. “It’s been great seeing the response of the city; it feels really good to know that we live in a city that cares so much. We just wish our elected officials shared that.”

Lorrie Sandelin, director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf, said food insecurity has always existed.

Since March, the food shelf has seen more visitors than average, although its June numbers were closer to pre-COVID times, which Sandelin attributed to other community pop-up donation centers addressing those needs.

One noticeable change she sees now is more first-timers.

“It doesn’t take much to go from being a food-secure household to a food-insecure household, and I think what is happening in our world highlights that,” she said. “It’s just brought these needs to the forefront, and people realize that food insecurity can happen to your neighbor. It can be anybody.”

Moving forward, Sandelin said, food shelves will have to be flexible and continue to rise to the challenge. Already Joyce Uptown Foodshelf is planning to purchase a van to make food deliveries and plans to open its main floor back up to allow clients to choose the goods they want.

“I think this is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint,” she said. “I’ve just been really humbled by the amount of community outpouring. … I think that is pretty amazing.”


The Twin Cities Mutual Aid map is continually updated with information about how to receive food and supplies and where you can go to make a donation or volunteer.