A line of cars stretched miles down the street. Two bags per car, each filled to the brim with various food items — beef, pork, sausage, bread and maybe a cookie or some milk. Around 250 bags were distributed and 200 families fed each week. More than $130,000 in donations.
That's a snapshot of the Food Train at Cloquet’s B&B Market. Since its founding in March 2020, the project has only grown, said John Lind, B&B Market co-owner.
What started as a small donation from Lenny Conklin is now a weekly food drive providing meals for families in need throughout the Cloquet area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea started when Conklin wanted to give back to the community after it rallied behind his 9-year-old son Blake’s battle with leukemia, which began in 2018.
After noticing a “give a penny, take a penny” jar at a local Kwik Trip, Conklin donated money to B&B Market so owners John and Kim Lind could give away approximately 100 pounds of ground beef to community members in need.
“I just said I wanted to do something … that would create some kind of residual effect,” Conklin said, adding that he wanted to incorporate a local business into the project.
After his initial donation, Conklin posted about the cause on social media. Then, he went for a run. Upon returning home, Conklin said his phone was “blowing up” with support and people looking to give.
John Lind uses monetary donations given by community members and businesses to order extra food from the store’s supplier for the food distributions.
The Food Train has now raised $132,137.61.
According to B&B Market employees, community members and businesses also donate food and other products to help fill the bags. The store's suppliers have also donated.
“I never would have imagined it would turn into what it has,” Conklin said. “It’s just incredible.”
Although it is extra work for the store, John Lind feels the project is worth it.
“A lot of people are needing the help,” he said.
John Lind and his staff, along with any community volunteers, usually begin putting the bags of food together around 11 a.m. every Thursday. Typically, five or six people are required to make the bags, with another employee working in the front of the store.
“I couldn’t have done it without my employees … and my wife,” John Lind said of the project.
One of the biggest challenges with the Food Train, according to John Lind, has been finding enough help with the project on Thursdays.
Recently, students in Cloquet’s National Honor Society have been volunteering, along with some community members, he said.
"We thought we could ... help with a great cause," volunteer John Keith said.
Keith began volunteering at the Food Train with his friend, Durnell Peterson, after seeing posts about the project on social media. They both said it's been a worthwhile use of their time.
"It makes us feel good," Keith shared.
After the bags are full, John Lind and his crew load them into the back of vans stationed in B&B’s parking lot. They usually begin distribution around 1 p.m.
As drivers pull into B&B Market, workers load a maximum of two bags into each car. They go until the bags are gone.
On a recent Thursday, John Lind said they gave away 260 bags in about 50 minutes.
“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” he added.
Not all of the cars get bags of food, and sometimes they have to turn people away.
“We just do what we can do," John Lind said.
The line of cars typically stretches approximately two miles along Big Lake Road in Cloquet, and starts forming as early as 11:30 a.m.
B&B Market employee Irene Carlson said it's clear how much the community needs the Food Train based on how many cars line up each week.
Due to complications with traffic early on, B&B Market stationed a sign instructing cars where to park along the road as they wait. The market’s parking lot also has two functioning exits, allowing for traffic to move smoothly in and out of the lot.
The effort saw a spike in donations around the holidays, but now it is leveling off. Kim Lind said the project has used $128,143.50 of its current funds.
John Lind said he is not sure how much longer they will be able to continue with the Food Train, but said he is grateful for what has been given.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without the community,” he said.
To volunteer with the Food Train or learn how to donate, message B&B Market’s Facebook page or call the store at 218-879-3555.