Two men load a cart with meals

Behind The Wheel: Tagging Along During Kitchen Coalition Meal Pick-Up

On a cold Monday morning, I get to our Headquarters in Brooklyn Park a little bit earlier than I typically do on a regular work day, stopping for coffee and chugging it in the parking lot before heading through the double doors. I walk through the Second Harvest Heartland Distribution Center, already buzzing with forklifts hauling pallets of fresh apples into the space outside of the Volunteer Center, awaiting the first volunteer shift to arrive to sort the fruit into portions for our neighbors.  

The back of a Kitchen Coalition truck as the sun rises

The Kitchen Coalition truck prepares for a day of pickups and deliveries.

Today, I am going on a ride-a-long: grabbing my camera, backpack, and voice recorder and hopping into a Kitchen Coalition-branded truck to pick up meals at our partner kitchens, before dropping them off at our partner locations across the Twin Cities.  

The day starts with an empty truck adorned with the Kitchen Coalition logo, but soon will be filled up with meals from various restaurants around the Twin Cities and just as quickly distributed to Kitchen Coalition’s partners.

I meet Anthony, one of Kitchen Coalition’s drivers out front of our building, who offers me a spot in his car as he warms up the truck. “You don’t want to get in there when it’s cold.”

A man in sunglasses stands by a Kitchen Coalition truck

Anthony, one of Kitchen Coalition drivers, has developed a great relationship with the kitchens during his time at Second Harvest Heartland.

Anthony has been driving trucks for almost ten years—“my job is a hidden gem,” he says. “It gives me a lot of time to reflect on my life, listen to the radio, things like that. It’s my quiet time.” I jokingly apologize for interrupting his meditation time. “If you talk too much I’m gonna drop you off,” he laughs.

Our first stop of the day is Create Catering, a high-end catering business located off Broadway Street in Northeast Minneapolis. Anthony parks the truck in the parking lot outside of the building and is greeted by Logan, who brings a massive grey crate filled with pre-packed meals. Today, we are picking up a number of lunches to be dropped off at Better Futures Minnesota, a workplace development program that provides work skills and support for men who have faced incarceration. Better Futures Minnesota has a ReUse Warehouse in South Minneapolis that carries salvaged building materials and provides deconstruction services to help homeowners complete their projects for a fraction of the cost, while providing funding for Better Futures Minnesota’s outreach and integrated-care services. Philip Dorwart, owner of Create Catering, talks about the importance of providing a variety of meals to the various distribution partners. “Our meals vary every week depending on what's available which I think our distribution partners really like. We very rarely reprise anything because of the way that stuff changes. So it keeps our chefs into it.”

A Kitchen Coalition truck and a Create Catering truck parked outside of Create Catering

Create Catering provides a large variety of meals to various distribution partners.

After loading up the refrigerated Kitchen Coalition truck, we point our compass toward downtown Minneapolis and Fhima’s restaurant, located in City Center. This is one of Kitchen Coalition’s largest pick-ups, with over 700 meals being dropped off at six different locations throughout the day. I get a behind the scenes look of how everything operates, as we descend underneath the Minneapolis Marriott into the loading dock, where about a dozen trucks are picking up and dropping of various materials for the multitude of restaurants and hotels above. “Everyone has the same idea—get here early!” says Anthony, as he expertly navigates through the crowded space and backs the Kitchen Coalition truck into an empty bay area—a task that I would absolutely fail at ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Since it is such a large order, Anthony needs to maneuver a pallet jack through the catacombs of City Center and take a freight elevator up to the restaurant. This provides some unforeseen obstacles—although Anthony says that various hiccups are simply a part of the job. “Every time I get ahead, something happens! We build in time between stops, but also we know that at some stops people are waiting outside for me to arrive. Folks are clapping when I get there,” he says.  

White trays filled with potatoes and cooked vegetables

Staff at Fhima's Minneapolis prepare Kitchen Coalition meals using food bank ingredients.

In this instance, only one of the freight elevators is currently in operation. Furthermore, a driver for one of the other restaurants had his pallet of materials spill when getting out of the elevator, requiring a massive clean-up. “They had it wrapped too high,” comments Anthony.

After a slight delay, we are able to get through the back door of Fhima’s restaurant, where a number of chefs are busy prepping and cooking Kitchen Coalition meals, as well as getting things ready for lunch service in a few short hours. David Fhima, owner and Chef of Fhima’s, in his signature Minnesota Timberwolves chef’s apron pauses for a minute from doing the books to greet us. “KitchCo!” he exclaims as we make our way toward the freezers in the back.  

A Kitchen Coalition sticker in a window

Many of Kitchen Coalitions partner kitchens proudly display their involvement in the program.

It is a wild and energetic scene, navigating the massive pallet of crates of meals through the kitchen while chefs adorned in KitchCo aprons and hats continue to dice red peppers and onions. Anthony and one of Fhima’s chefs masterfully steer a pallet through the tight hallways and Anthony successfully gets the over 700 meals into the back of the Kitchen Coalition truck. On the way out, I thank everyone in the kitchen for letting me tag along. “Thank you for allowing us to feed people,” says Chef Fhima.

A frozen Kitchen Coalition meal

Kitchen Coalition kitchens provide culturally appropriate meals for a multitude of communities.

Meals from Fhima’s are going to multiple sites, including The JK Movement and the Good Neighbor Center: organizations that are dedicated to creating life-changing opportunities for Pre-K through College youth. Amanda Jacobson, Program Coordinator of the Good Neighbor Center puts it best: “You can’t study if you’re hungry. It’s really alleviated a lot of work on my end to have nutritious culturally appropriate meals prepared for our students and our families.” Today’s pick-up includes single-serving meals of chicken thighs in coconut curry with vegetables and white rice, whereas the larger family-serving meals consist of macaroni with Bolognese sauce, with mixed vegetables.

“Those single serve meals, you can get full off them. They’re nice portions. The family trays too—they feed four people. It’s real nice,” says Anthony.  

Most of the family trays will be dropped off at Central Square Community Center in South Saint Paul, which goes through approximately 500 meals in a matter of hours. “These will be gone by tomorrow,” says Linda Jacobs-Buse, Central Square’s Community Education Facilitator. “We mostly serve families, but we do have 244 active seniors. Bringing the community together has been a phenomenal experience, people are grabbing meals for neighbors that are shut in, or people who have just had surgeries, or just lost their partners. It has brought our community together.”

Kitchen Coalition meals in delivery crates

Many of Kitchen Coalitions meals are picked up, dropped off, and distributed all within a matter of hours.

Our final pick-up of the day is in Midtown Global Market, where Anthony and I arrive at the South Dock just before 10 a.m. The market is quiet, as most of the various food stands are not yet open, but many of the vendors are in the process of setting out their menus for the day and turning on their neon-lit signs. We make our way through the market, where we find Trung Pham, owner of Pham’s Rice Bowl, who greets Anthony with a handshake and a hug.

“Best food,” Anthony says to me while pointing at Chef Pham, who laughs and shakes my hand. “He’s just saying that,” says Chef Pham.

We are there to pick up 405 meals: today’s offering is a breaded chicken dinner with rice and vegetables. Most of today’s meals are going to Metro State’s Food for Thought Pantry, which is open to all Metro State students and their families. This is important to Chef Pham, who had food insecurity when he was a student: “I was one of those kids who went to college without a lot of food. It’s really a way for me to reconnect back to when I was younger.”

A man in a black jacket loading meals into a refridgerator

Kitchen Coalition's drivers are a valuable part in the fight against hunger.

Something that stood out to me while on my ride-a-long is how much goes into keeping our neighbors fed—from not only the cooking and preparation of the food by kitchens such as Create Catering, Fhima’s, and Pham’s Rice Bowl—as well as Kitchen Coalition’s other partner kitchens, but the packaging, storage, and transportation efforts. There are slow traffic days through downtown Minneapolis, under construction potholes in Saint Paul, and crowded docking garages. There are broken elevators and finicky bay doors. There are tight turns with over 700 meals on metal pallet jacks, complete with the weight of knowing that these meals are going to provide dinner for countless families. And there are countless partners that have made refrigerator room and space for these meals that then go out to the neighbors that they serve. It is an eye opening, but exciting and necessary process, and truly inspirational to see up close.

After our day, I asked Anthony what was his favorite aspect of his job. He quickly answered: “Helping people. It’s that feeling you get when you help people—we are out here giving families the chance to have dinner. And that’s so important.”