Now in its ninth year, Ruby's Pantry distributes an average of 700,000 pounds of food to 5,000 families throughout northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each month.
Not bad for an organization that started purely by accident.
"We had no intention of ever doing this," said Pastor Lyn Sahr, founder of
Ruby's Pantry. "The most surprised guy is me."
Ruby's Pantry is an outreach program of Home and Away Ministries. Sahr felt a calling to lead mission trips and help the poor in Monterrey, Mexico. Collecting donations of toys to distribute on his mission trips became a regular part of the process.
And then came the donation that changed everything.
In 2003, Sahr headed from Pine City, Minn., to Minneapolis to pick
up what he thought was a truckload of toys and trinkets.
What he got was food - more food than he had any idea how to distribute. Knowing the food couldn't be transported to Mexico, Sahr called some friends for advice and, with their help, distributed it to local families in need.
"After a few weeks of picking up food every week thinking we were getting toys, we finally came to a place where we said, 'Hey, evidently this is something meant to be'," Sahr recalled, "I just prayed, 'Okay God, I will do this, and I will take this as high and as far as you want to take it and
I will not be afraid.' And so we have forged ahead to try to meet as many people's needs as possible."
Today, Ruby's Pantry is based in Pine City with a distribution center in North Branch. Armed with surplus food donated by major corporations such as Cargill, Michael Foods, Gold'n Plump and Bernatello's Pizza, the outreach program delivers to more than 25 communities each month, including Duluth, Cloquet, Brookston and Moose Lake. 15 employees
and a whopping 4,000 volunteers help in the collection and distribution of food, offering a hand up (Sahr emphasizes it's not a handout) to locals.
In Duluth, Ruby's Pantry makes two regular stops: at St. Margaret Mary
Catholic Church (a joint effort coordinated with United Protestant Church) on the first Tuesday of each month, and at First United Methodist Church on the third Thursday of each month.
Recipients are asked to make a $15 donation and anyone is eligible to receive the food. Unlike some other low-cost food distributions, income doesn't play a factor in recipient eligibility. The program is for both people in need and people who recognize its value. Based on April statistics, each person walked out with an average of 93 pounds of food.
"The program is self-running," said Sahr. "The donations from the participants support the basic functional costs of the operation."
Twenty percent of the donations are given directly back to the sponsoring churches or organizations. That money, which totaled $120,000 in 2010, can then be distributed to help cover unexpected costs such as emergency
vehicle - or home repairs for people in need.
The name Ruby's Pantry is a tribute to Sahr's grandmother, Ruby Flodin, who was often known to share what little she had with others who needed it.
"She lived her faith," Sahr said.
It's a similar belief that has kept her namesake running and growing. "We operate with totally donated food," said Sahr, "so we have to depend on that food coming in. And when you start handling 700,000 pounds of food a month and you're distributing most of it through these distribution centers, if the food doesn't come in, you're in trouble. So it's a real
faith thing that we've always had food."
"I've been a pastor for about 25 years and I never pastored a church that had this kind of social ministry," said Sahr. "The whole program is unbelievable."
To learn more about Ruby's Pantry and its delivery schedule, visit www.homeandawayministries.org.