Nisswa organization ramps up meal production
The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes helping 17 agencies - 18 people working for two hours, packing 12,000 emergency meals
A group of 18 people gathered Thursday evening, April 2, in Nisswa, believing the cause they were working for was worth the risk of having more people together in one room than is currently recommended.
Those 18 people worked for two hours to pack 12,000 emergency meals for 17 agencies in the Brainerd lakes area at The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes facility in Nisswa. Those agencies include food shelves, soup kitchens, schools and meal programs.
“We’re just barely keeping up with demand,” said Shawn Hansen, director of the local program who is not taking a salary right now because of her belief that the money needs to go to buy ingredients for the meals.
While other such programs have closed their doors in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing guidelines, Hansen said the need for food is even greater now than just a month ago.
“Our board met right away we said, ‘Our community needs us now more than ever,’” Hansen said.
Social distancing restrictions are in place: There are six people on a packing line, instead of the normal 12; three packing lines are operating instead of the normal six, leaving an open line of tables in between each operating line; volunteers are now wearing face masks in addition to hair nets, aprons and gloves; and they must wash their hands with soap before starting, rather than just using hand sanitizer.
A typical packing event has 60 to 70 people in the room; that number is now no more than 24 at one time.
The age limit for volunteers is now restricted to ages 18-60. Mainly the same group of volunteers has consistently been packing meals, so those people are somewhat in the same family “bubble,” Hansen said.
“We refer to this small group of COVID-19 packers as our pack warriors,” she said in a Facebook post.
Remarkably, The Outreach Program is still at 80% of production with fewer people doing the work. From March 17-April 3, volunteers packed 162,874 emergency food aid meals in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In all of 2019, the program packed 401,000 meals.
The Outreach Program, previously Kids Against Hunger, started in Nisswa in 2012 by sending all packed meals to international destinations. That philosophy changed in the last four to five years, with 80% to 90% of meals now going to agencies within a 100-mile radius of the Brainerd area. Since COVID-19, that radius was mostly tightened to 60 miles.
“We are impacting lives right here,” Hansen said.
The program packs six different dinner meals where recipients need only add boiling water and any extras they may want, like meat and vegetables. Meals include Spanish rice; minestrone soup; tomato basil pasta; macaroni and cheese; rice and bean meal; and cheesy rice. Two meals are gluten free, and the program also now packs a breakfast - apple cinnamon oatmeal. All meals are packed with nutrients, and each package has six servings.
Hansen said it costs $11,000 a week to produce the 37,000 meals needed. Each nutrient-packed meal costs just 30 cents.
“But we can’t not do this,” she said. “If we don’t provide this food, 17 agencies don’t get this food.”
None of those agencies pays for meals. The Outreach Program relies on private donations to keep it going. It also just received a $6,000 grant from the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation.
The program is packing meals three nights a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday - for the 17 agencies. Packing events were held all five nights last week to catch up with the demand.
“We produce it, it goes out,” Hansen said.
For anyone wanting to help, The Outreach Program will take donations to buy ingredients for the meals. After the COVID-19 threat passes, all the “amazing volunteers” will be welcomed back to help pack meals, said Tina Foster, volunteer and board member for The Outreach Program.
“Now, we have to control who’s in here,” she said.
Hansen emphasized that The Outreach Program doesn’t only help the poor.
“We don’t care if you’re rich or poor. I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. I don’t care if you worship God or you don’t. My job is to feed people,” she said. “It’s not for us to judge. We feed people.”
Mail donations to:
The Outreach Program BLA
24489 Hazelwood Drive
Nisswa, MN 56468
Go online to:
Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes, Pine River Food Shelf, Crosslake Food Shelf, Pine River-Backus School Tiger Den Food Pantry, Pine River and Backus Community Meal program, Emily Food Shelf, Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd, YMCA distribution program in Brainerd, Operation Sandwich in Brainerd, The Shop in Brainerd, Brainerd LEC and AEC programs, Baxter weekend meal program, Aitkin Food Shelf, Morrison County Food Shelf in Little Falls, Lakewood Food Farmacy in Staples, Verndale Public Schools and Long Prairie Grey Eagle Elementary School.
Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.