Ruby's Pantry, a food-sharing program for frugal families, expanded to the northeast metro this past year.

The nonprofit pop-up pantry is hosted by local churches, where about a wagon full of food is given to participants for $20. Ruby's Pantry only has a few metro sites; most are located in Greater Minnesota and Wisconsin.

North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills launched the pantry last spring and has seen increased participation over the year, said John Oldfield, the church's senior director of finance and administration. About 200 people come for food on the second Saturday of each month. There are no residential limits or income requirements to participate.

In fact, when people of various income levels participate, it allows the pantry to offer food for free to those who can't afford the $20 share fee that month, said Mark Mueller, site coordinator and church member.

“There are no qualifications for this,” Mueller said. “You just need to eat.”

The $20 share covers the cost of transportation and cold storage. The food is given for free from food distributors and producers who have excess food on hand that would otherwise go bad.

“It repurposes food that would otherwise go to waste,” Mueller noted.

For many, it also makes a big difference for their monthly budget and their stomachs — Oldfield said he once heard a child ask his mother, “Does this mean we can eat tonight?” Earlier this month, a grateful father with nine children made his way through the line.

Donna Beale, food line coordinator, hands out pantry items as people come through the line. “We have no idea what their need is,” she said.

For this reason, the church also sets up a community care table where participants can learn about other resources. There is a prayer booth where participants can drop off prayer requests. “We pray throughout the month for them,” said Tasse Swanson.

The once-a-month operation takes about 70 volunteers, Oldfield said. They arrive at 6 a.m. in the morning to greet the trucks delivering food and set up the food line. The food distribution begins at 9 a.m. and lasts until 10:30 a.m.

As the pantry winds down, volunteers who'd like to food share that month go through the line. Whatever is left over is delivered to other nonprofits, like the Union Gospel Mission or a food shelf.

Church member and volunteer Catherine Holmeoe said she is glad to see the pantry finally popped up in the northeast metro. She used to attend one in Isanti with her sister and thought it would be a great outreach for the church. Plus, she goes through the line herself since she has children with special needs and lives on a tight budget.

“So, it helps us a lot, too,” she said, before lining up for the last of that month's catch — lefse, pizza, rice, granola bars, peppers, milk, eggs, ice cream, and more.

Ruby's Pantry was founded about 15 years ago in Pine City by Lyn and RoxAnn Sahr. The ministry has more than 75 sites. In 2018, about 18 million pounds of food was donated and nearly 200,000 families were served. It is named after Sahr's grandmother. For more information, visit rubyspantry.org.

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