Innovations in Philanthropy: Minnesota Central Kitchen

Innovations in Philanthropy: Minnesota Central Kitchen

When catering requests came to an abrupt halt in March 2020, chef Liz Mullen’s instinct to feed the community grew stronger than ever. Within days, she and other food industry pros and nonprofit partners formed Minnesota Central Kitchen (MCK). In its first year, MCK had employed 179 food service workers, salvaged more than 1.3 million pounds of food, and served more than 1.3 million prepared meals to people in need.

Mullen, executive chef of Minneapolis-based Chowgirls Catering, has long used her industry connections and talent to help people through Second Harvest Heartland’s MealConnect program, which ensures that surplus food from commercial kitchens, restaurants, event centers, and caterers goes to food-insecure neighbors. But MealConnect only gathered leftover prepared meals and ingredients, and the volume was inconsistent—sometimes the program received a lot of donations, other days, only a few. MCK addressed the growing need for meals during the pandemic.

Primarily funded by Second Harvest Heartland, MCK creates and distributes prepared meals throughout the community. Food service, restaurant, and catering partners like Chowgirls provide MCK with kitchen space, employees, supplies, and ingredients to supplement the donations from the MealConnect platform and to prepare meals. Then Second Harvest Heartland and other distribution partners like Minneapolis-based Loaves & Fishes distribute the meals to the people who need them. Today, MCK has built a network of more than 100 partners to share its mission. As of March, it had nine active kitchens.

Perhaps most impressive is the speed with which MCK came together in a time of crisis. “We were definitely building the plane as we were flying it, but also fundraising for the parts of the plane,” says Emily Paul, executive director. Running at its current capacity, MCK requires about $6 million in funding a year.

Paul says that pre-pandemic, there were a lot of ad hoc programs like Loaves & Fishes’ community meals program. But most required people to gather in a central location. Meanwhile, Second Harvest Heartland was focused on a more traditional food bank model, in which it distributed ingredients rather than prepared meals. While this model remains the core of the organization, the pandemic led them to expand their offerings. “A box of ingredients or a trip to the food shelf, for many people, is the perfect answer to their food insecurity needs,” Paul says, “but it’s not the answer for everyone, like people who are barriered by transportation, by age or occupational ability, by access to housing and shelter to prepare that meal. We weren’t necessarily plugging into all those folks’ needs pre-Covid, so MCK is the perfect storm.”

Both Second Harvest Heartland and Chowgirls want to keep MCK running beyond the pandemic. “This has changed how I feel about my job,” Mullen says. “It has changed how everyone here comes to work. We don’t want to stop doing this work. As [in-person] catering kind of comes back … we want to find a way to continue to take care of our clients but also … take care of our community because, really, that is most important right now.”

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