GRAND MARAIS—Cook County residents can stretch their food dollars by participating in Ruby’s Pantry, a nonprofit, faith-based service that distributes nearly outdated or surplus food to over 55 rural communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The service, which began in Grand Marais in May, is also available in Silver Bay.
“You never know what you are getting. It’s always a surprise,” says Ruby’s Pantry volunteer Barb Spaulding of Grand Marais.
Ruby’s Pantry receives donations of surplus food from corporate suppliers throughout the Midwest. If the food didn’t go to Ruby’s pantry, most likely it would end up in a landfill. Spaulding says about 40 percent of the food in the U.S. is thrown away.
Instead, Ruby’s Pantry has two warehouses, one north of the Twin Cities and one in Wisconsin, where the food is collected. The food includes dry goods such as bread, crackers, pasta and cereal; frozen foods like ice cream, sausage and pizza dough; fresh produce and other food items.
“There even a few odd things,” Spaulding said. “We’ve even received chairs and a book.”
Once a month, a semi full of food is dispatched to Grand Marais. When it arrives at the ISD 166 elementary school, a team of 50 to 75 volunteers divides the food into equal shares. A skid steer from Edwin E. Thorson, Inc. is used to unload the goods. Every share contains the same items. Then it is ready for distribution.
Participants are referred to as guests. They register when they arrive and donate $20 to receive a share. Some donate more so that others less fortunate may receive a share. Ruby’s Pantry is not financially based. Anyone may participate.
Once they are registered, guests are given a share number to pin on their shirts. They then wait until they are called to go through the distribution line. Then, armed with boxes, baskets and bins, they pass through the line to receive their share. Volunteers provide carts to place the shares on. They then go get their vehicles and pass through a loop drive, where the volunteers help them load up the shares.
Generally, many guests arrive at 5 p.m., when the distribution begins. As a result, they have to wait to receive their share. Those who arrive later (distribution lasts from 5-6:30 p.m.) don’t have to wait. After everyone goes through the line, some of the remaining shares go into “blessing boxes,” which are given to people who local churches, social services and other organizations have suggested may need a little help. Any extra food is donated to organizations like the Senior Center in Grand Marais, the elders in Grand Portage, church youth groups and similar groups and organizations. Any food, such as produce, that has begun to spoil is given to local farms for livestock feed.
“Nothing goes to waste,” Spaulding said.
After the distribution is complete, more volunteers come to help with the clean-up. They sweep floors, clean and put the tables away and leave the school site as clean as it was when they arrived.
Ruby’s Panty in Cook County was started by a core group of 10 volunteers. Since it is faith-based, it must be hosted by a church; in this case Spirit of the Wilderness. Spaulding, who coordinates the volunteers, has a pool of over 100 people in the community who she contacts monthly to see if they have time to help out.
“We’re always looking for volunteers,” she says. “You don’t have to commit to every time.”
Of the $20 donation, 90 percent goes to pay for the operation’s overhead, such as warehouses, wages and trucking. The remaining 10 percent is used locally to purchase supplies such as bags, gloves and hairnets and to cover expenses, including a small amount to the school district for the use of its facilities. The local group does not build a bank account. Any extra money is given back to the community to various nonprofit programs that provide help to other people.
What you need to know about Ruby’s Pantry Distribution
Food distribution occurs in Grand Marais from 5-6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month at the ISD 166 elementary school. The donation is $20. Bring two sturdy boxes, bins, coolers or tote bags to carry your food.
To sign up, you fill out an annual registration form with your name and contact information (the form doesn’t ask for financial information). You receive a Guest Loyalty Card that you present at each distribution. You can pick up shares for your friends or neighbors if you present their signed registration form. Like the Cook County Ruby’s Pantry on Facebook.
Volunteers are always needed to help with the distribution. Contact Barb Spaulding at firstname.lastname@example.org.