On a recent day at the Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes, Tammy Larsen guided a cart full of groceries down a ramp for her husband and volunteer, Tom Larsen, to put in the trunk of a patron’s car, all with a genuine smile on her face.

One would never have guessed Tammy Larsen had just weeks earlier taken over as director of the food shelf located just south of downtown Pequot Lakes on Patriot Avenue. One would never have guessed that she took on the role right as the COVID-19 outbreak hit the state.

“We are getting such a positive response from clients,” Larsen said after working Thursday morning, March 26, at the food shelf. “Their expectation is that the food shelf might not even be open. They’re just happy it’s open. And they’re happy that it’s done in a safe manner. They’re appreciative.

“You hear the relief,” she said of reassuring patrons who call and learn that the food shelf is indeed operating.

Instead of going inside and choosing their items, patrons now wait in their cars while volunteers bring out pre-bagged groceries.

“This food shelf was able to make this transition over a weekend from choice shopping to pre-packed bags because of its amazingly dedicated volunteers,” Larsen said.

Larsen, who is visibly sincere and passionate about her job, is amazed at the response she’s received considering she is just the third food shelf director in 29 years, following in the footsteps of Don Messick, a founder of the food shelf, and Carey Rasinski. Despite having moved to Pequot Lakes with Tom just two years ago, Larsen is no stranger to the area.

Born and raised in Wayzata and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, her parents bought a beautiful piece of land with a rustic cabin on the west side of Sibley Lake in Pequot Lakes in 1982, when Larsen was a high school senior. The Larsens’ two daughters have precious memories of spending time with their grandparents at the 18- by 20-foot cabin built in the 1950s on a cement block and with an outhouse.

Tragedy struck in 2005, when Larsen’s father died unexpectedly. The cabin held too many memories of her father, complete with John Deere tractor hats hung from the rafters, so the family stopped spending time there for about 10 years. Her mom put the cabin on the market for five years, but it never sold.

Then in 2016, the Larsens’ grown daughter experienced another tragedy when five members of her husband’s family died in a car accident.

“That fall, they asked Grandma if there was any chance we could go to the cabin,” Larsen said. “Mom handed her a huge set of keys and said she had no idea if anything not touched in 10 years would work.”

Larsen, her sister and her mom tagged along to the cabin.

“We all went up and opened up the cabin and it was just this big safe haven for my daughter and son-in-law,” she said, noting they found the solitude they were seeking.

After that next school year, Tom retired, and though he initially had no interest in the cabin, he had a change of heart that summer of 2017 and ventured there while his wife stayed home working long hours for Wells Fargo.

“He’d say, ‘I’ll stay for a week,’ but he never came back,” Larsen said with a laugh.

“It was interesting when he came home in the fall. He said, ‘You’re driving so fast.’ And I said, ‘No honey, I’m not driving any faster than I was in June,’” Larsen said.

To everyone’s surprise, Tom decided instead of retiring south he wanted to retire on Sibley Lake. That fall, they tore down the cabin - after putting together a book with photos and written memories - and built a home. The couple moved here permanently in March 2018, and Larsen was able to work remotely for Wells Fargo.

Then in February, Larsen found out she would no longer be able to telecommute. She had employees in 13 states and India serving 400,000 people daily.

“And this was not part of the plan,” she said, noting her options were to move back to Minneapolis or to Charlotte, North Carolina.

On almost the same day she got the news about her job, her husband told her Rasinski was resigning as food shelf director. He loves volunteering at the food shelf, where she’d also helped unload trucks.

She recalled that for about the past five years, she frequently mentioned that she wanted to run a nonprofit. She had done a lot of charity work in Minneapolis over the years, including with homelessness and food shelves.

“I kept thinking and said, ‘Maybe I should do it,’” she said of the director position.

Larsen landed the job and now works Tuesdays and Thursdays at the food shelf as she transitions from her role with Wells Fargo.

“It’s been an amazing three weeks of doing it,” she said.

Right after she started in her new role, the state confirmed its first case of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

“I thought, ‘How can we run a food shelf?,” Larsen said, noting she didn’t want volunteers in a high risk age group shopping with people for half an hour.

They started packing food that first weekend in March for patrons.

“It seemed a little early when making the decision, but we are so glad that we did,” Larsen said.

When the COVID-19 threat passes, Larsen is excited to offer food shelf patrons more fresh produce. Nutrition is important to her.

“The goal for me is to not have it be food that feeds their belly, but how do we get really good food? I’m excited for Second Harvest popups and fresh produce,” she said, noting how good fresh, healthy vegetables taste. “I want to get healthier food into the bellies of our clients.”

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.