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Growing to meet a need

Loaves & Fishes continues to serve the community

Photo courtesy of Loaves & Fishes This summer, Minnesota nonprofit Loaves & Fishes is continuing its partnership with the Marshall Area YMCA, and providing healthy lunches to kids.

MARSHALL — During the shutdowns and other disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of free meals served by Minnesota nonprofit Loaves & Fishes jumped up sharply. A year later, there’s still plenty of need, Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Cathy Maes said.

“Just because the calendar turned, it doesn’t mean people are automatically fine,” Maes said.

In 2020, Loaves & Fishes served a total of 11,774 meals in Marshall, through local partners like Esther’s Kitchen and the Marshall Area YMCA. So far this year, they’ve served 7,160 meals.

“We are still on par for what we did in 2020,” Maes said. While the organization is working to expand services to meet growing needs, they’re also looking for volunteers.

Loaves & Fishes has two main goals, Maes said: serving free, healthy meals and bringing people together. Both of those missions have had to adapt since the start of the COVID pandemic, but the organization is still serving kids and families in the Marshall area.

Loaves & Fishes is serving around 70 to 100 lunches each weekday to children through summer programs at the Marshall Area YMCA, Maes said. It’s a partnership that started about five years ago.

“We love that we’re helping children,” and it’s also good to assist a local nonprofit like the Marshall Area Y, Maes said.

“I love it. It’s the best part of the day,” Christy Bottger said of working with the kids. As site coordinator for Loaves & Fishes, Bottger, goes from serving lunches for children at the Y to preparing and serving dinners at Esther’s Kitchen, located at Christ United Presbyterian Church in Marshall. Loaves & Fishes has worked with Esther’s Kitchen since 2014.

Bottger said she’s seen a new crowd of people who have come to Esther’s kitchen since 2020. And Marshall isn’t the only location that’s seen an increase in numbers of meals served. Loaves & Fishes served a total of 4.4 million meals last year, and are on pace to serve another 4 million this year, said Ryan Tibbitts, director of communications at Loaves & Fishes. It’s a big increase from the 1.36 million meals served statewide in 2019, according to figures from Loaves & Fishes’ website.

During the pandemic, unemployment was one factor driving increased need for meals. Some of that need hasn’t gone away, Maes said. Loaves & Fishes is also seeing a need for healthy meals among groups like older Minnesotans, Maes said.

“We also are seeing a real need for volunteers,” Maes said. It’s possible that local volunteer groups might not know that there are still opportunities to help out with meal programs in their area, she said. Bottger said volunteer numbers at Esther’s Kitchen dropped during the pandemic, but things are changing as people become a little more confident about safety.

“I’m seeing gradually that volunteers want to come back,” she said.

Community members and volunteer groups are encouraged to get involved, Maes said.

Maes said one positive thing is that Esther’s Kitchen has been able to expand its schedule to help meet the increased need for meals.

“We’ve been able to expand to five weekdays,” she said.

Esther’s Kitchen serves to-go meals Monday through Friday, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., at Christ United Presbyterian Church.

Maes said COVID-19 also made it harder to bring people together for meals. Currently, Esther’s Kitchen is still serving drive-up meals to go in Marshall. For now, Maes said, “We’re going to err on the side of caution.” But Maes and Bottger said they’re looking forward to when open dining can return — and community members are looking forward to it as well, Bottger said.

“We hope to open the doors in October for open dining,” Bottger said. Tentatively, the doors would open at 5 p.m., with the last meal being served at 6:30 p.m.

Maes said people who want to donate to Loaves & Fishes or are interested in volunteering to cook and serve meals can sign up at the group’s website, www.loavesandfishesmn.org.

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