Since April, Riverview Church in Pine River and the Pine Mountaineer Senior Center in Backus have been hosts to free community meals on Mondays and Tuesdays, respectively. The program has since ballooned with success and organizers are looking for more help.

Since the program started in April, more than 3,600 meals have been served. According to Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit that provides much of the food for the program, the Pine River site started by serving 25 meals a night and now serves more than 160. Backus started serving 80 people per night and now serves 204. That number is significant, given the population of Backus.

“We're 250 people according to the sign at the road and we serve nearly that many people,” said Backus Volunteer Coordinator Vickie Majernick.

Compared to community meals in other areas, Pine River and Backus are operating on a similar level.

“Pine River and Backus are helping us make sure rural Minnesota is not forgotten,” said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves and Fishes Minnesota. “When we talk about rural Minnesota, we're in four locations. We're in Aitkin, which has really taken off as well. We've added on a senior lunch. They are serving around the same amount of people. In Marshall, we started five years ago and it's quite similar. Not quite as many people, but she's serving 75-100 people a night and we're there four nights a week.”

Behind the meal planning is Brian Chaffee, site coordinator and chef for both locations. As one of the founders of the program, Chaffee said need is a factor. That's why the program started in the first place. Maes agrees.

“One in 11 Minnesotans don't know where their next meal is coming from,” said Maes. “That's a staggering statistic. One in eight children don't know where their next meal is coming from.”

It's worth noting the meal is not just for people in need, and many who have attended have done so for other reasons. The success of the local program is also a combination of hospitality, quality of food and quality of company. One of program's mission statements is to provide restaurant quality food in a hospitality setting.

Majernick visits tables during the meal in Backus to stir up conversations among diners. A lot of people attend just for socializing.

“I think that's part of the success of that meal, that feeling you get,” Majernick said. “Plus the chef has excellent food.”

“It really does bring together communities,” Maes said. “A lot of people, especially older Minnesotans, they might not have spoken to anybody all day, so coming together is important to us as well. We nourish people in two ways, one with healthy, nutritious food and two with bringing communities together.”

Success in a program like this can also increase need. Initially the program started with grant seed money and whatever volunteers could be gathered. To keep going, they need a little more of both volunteers and donations. Backus has had six to eight teams that rotate each month to avoid burnout. Pine River had some issues scheduling groups after a volunteer coordinator left, but Chaffee said he now has only one week per month that isn't spoken for.

“I have filled three of the four weeks of the month,” Chaffee said. “I have one Monday to fill with a group. I'm hoping a Lions club or Rotary will fill in.”

Both groups could still use more hands on deck.

“The more I get, the faster it goes,” Majernick said. “Six has kind of become the minimum. Eight you probably get out a little quicker.”

"Groups can come volunteer and help get meals on plates, help cook and serve," Maes said. "Farmers, if they have excess produce during harvest time, those are great options for us."

Donations are also being sought.

“Food is coming together from Loaves and Fishes and donations of overstocked foods from Trout Lake Camp and some other places, Manhattan Beach, Breezy Point,” Chaffee said. “What I can't get is disposable stuff. To-go boxes, napkins, butter. Those kind of things that aren't provided. We have to buy them. We do what we can to keep cost down but we send a healthy amount of food to people who can't get to the site. I send 50-60 to-go boxes to people who are shut in or can't make it for health reasons.”

Of course, financial donations also help, but they can't be made at the meals. They should be given to the Pine River-Backus Family Center, the fiscal agent for the program. They accept donations from both individuals and groups.