By Steve Brandt, member of the Incarnation Catholic Church
Harvest From The Heart has completed its second full year based at Incarnation Catholic Church, and has amassed some impressive numbers. It serves 3,500 households in an average month, and has gone as high as 4,000. The number of people served in the food shelf’s first year jumped by double-digit percentages each month.
Most impressive, it served 42,000 families in 2023, far above its startup goal of 15,000. That’s more than any other food shelf in South Minneapolis.
“I think the need for food in south Minneapolis is evident,” said Dan de St. Aubin, the church’s development director. He was hired to lead a planned capital campaign for Incarnation Church but the arrival of the pandemic quickly shifted his role to filling the bellies of laid-off families who attend the church or live in the nearby community, for which his past retail experience was invaluable. Many of the church’s Spanish-speaking parishioners worked in the service and hospitality industries and were among the first to be laid off.
The church responded with an outdoor drive-through food line in 2020, operating every other Saturday. It distributed 1.6 million pounds of food that way. The food shelf represents the post-pandemic institutionalizing of that food assistance.
For years, the church ran a tiny food pantry tucked away in its basement. But the hunger-need demonstrated by the pandemic prompted the Southwest landmark Catholic church to turn its former garage space into an indoor retail-style market where customers could pick from among a variety of fresh, canned and frozen foods, including meats.
Although 71 percent of those served reflect Incarnation Church’s largely Latino makeup, the free food also pulls in Somalis, Afghanis, Ukrainians and even a Kurdish family. There’s halal food for Muslim families. The food shelf seeks feedback from its users on the type of culturally specific foods they’d like. Strawberries, potatoes and corn are popular, de St. Aubin said. There’s also plant-based protein for vegetarian and vegan diets.
“We’ve got a bunch of hippies who come here.” de St. Aubin said
More than half of shoppers come from three south Minneapolis zip codes, including the home zip code for the church at 3801 Pleasant Ave. S. A full 80% hail from somewhere in Minneapolis. Two-thirds of customers are of Spanish-speaking heritage, one reason that native Spanish speakers comprise the Harvest From The Heart staff and some volunteers.
The collection of sufficient food to meet the demand is a full time job for de St. Aubin and his assistant, Chris Pangle. About 98% of the food offered is rescued from or donated by retail stores or wholesalers that would otherwise go to waste; that means that the food shelf needs to purchase little food. It also means lots of logistical planning. The church rents a truck from the nonprofit Society of St. Vincent De Paul to make up 25 to 30 food pickups from groceries and food suppliers in a week. Nonprofit food bank Second Harvest Heartland delivers twice weekly.
One trip illustrates the lengths that Harvest From The Heart will go to collect food. In 2022, the food shelf bought five cows from a South Dakota rancher, had them butchered and then de St. Aubin drove to South Dakota to haul the meat back in a refrigerated truck. Beef tongue was particularly popular among food shelf users that week. He repeated that in 2023 with three cows donated from northwestern Minnesota. Another grant will supply thousands of pounds of Minnesota-grown chicken.
Although the food shelf opens in the late morning several days a week, some customers line up in the parish rectory’s wood-chipped backyard hours ahead.
“People develop a sense of community who gather to wait for the shelf to open.” Pangle said, comparing the social scene to market day in Latin countries. “There’s a fear of missing out for some.”
Pangle learned his way around food rescue at the Loaves and Fishes meals program. But there’s no need to be first in line, he said. Later customers are likely to have the same selection as the first.
De St. Aubin compares using the food shelf to buying food at a local corner store, with selections made by the customer rather than provided in a pre-packed box. Among other services the program has offered are vaccine clinics and teeth cleaning, and information about Hennepin County services, addiction treatment, energy assistance and food stamps.
Ruth Palecek, 65, was among those lined up for food one day. She heard of the shelter from her husband, who has volunteered there. While he’s on Social Security and taking care of grandchildren, their earnings are down.
“It’s just nice to have a place to go to right now, with the cost of groceries,” she said. She was hoping for fresh fruits and vegetables.
So was a Lake Nokomis area resident, who gave his name as Sal, age 42. He was on his first visit to Harvest From The Heart, which he found in an online list.
“I just wanted extra food for the kids, as long as it’s good food,” he said.
Folks like these found Harvest From The Heart even though it has only publicized its food through Incarnation Church’s social media accounts, which is supplemented by word-of-mouth. Demand has been so strong that the church so far hasn’t even needed to pump out an alert to the thousands of phone contacts that it amassed when it served the drive-through customers.
But as the pandemic wanes, so is government assistance that helped to cover operating costs. That meant that Incarnation Church needed to raise philanthropic grants and other donations to cover the planned addition of additional walk-in cooler and dry food storage space. The demand has forced the church to limit households to one visit weekly until the new space is ready in 2024.
“We are probably the most efficient food shelf in the county,” de St. Aubin said. “There is no one else turning inventory like we are in 1,200 square feet.” That amounts to an average of four tons of food per day, with the number served ranging between about 180 and 240 households. An average 1,000 households are served weekly.
Incarnation Catholic Church is located at 3801 Pleasant Ave. Harvest From The Heart at Incarnation Church is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. It will be closed on Dec. 23 and Dec. 26.