Merrick and Woodland Hills team up for food shelf success

Maxine Brooks picks out some salad greens from Merrick Community Service’s food shelf at Woodland Hills Church. Thanks to the food shelf, she’s able to give her grandchildren, whom she’s raising, nutritious meal options. Brooks, an East Sider, relies on Social Security while raising her three young grandchildren. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Maxine Brooks picks out some salad greens from Merrick Community Service’s food shelf at Woodland Hills Church. Thanks to the food shelf, she’s able to give her grandchildren, whom she’s raising, nutritious meal options. Brooks, an East Sider, relies on Social Security while raising her three young grandchildren. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

A few years ago, Merrick Community Services’ food shelf was dinky.

It was in a commercial building, where the organization paid market-rate rent of $1,400 a month, and where food shelf recipients waited outdoors, rain or shine, to receive groceries.

The food shelf could only help about 30 low-income families a day.

The location, on Hudson Road near the Historic Mounds Theatre, “was really, really subpar,” says food shelf manager Courteney Roessler.

Merrick only had a handful of volunteers at the food pantry, and it was sometimes hard to get them to show up, especially when it was snowing and 10 degrees below zero, and the task at hand was unloading tons of food off of pallets into the building and carrying them up some steps.

On her second day on the job, Roessler recalls telling her boss, “we need to get out of there.”

So, within the year, Merrick moved its food shelf to another nearby building, just south of Interstate 94, near the previous location. It was slightly better.

But the food shelf was still only able to serve about 30 families a day. And space was tight. The agency needed a more permanent fix.

After years of searching, Merrick wound up finding Woodland Hills Church, whose members were interested in partnering with social service organizations. They moved into the building in March 2013.

Now, Merrick’s food shelf recipients wait with dignity in a clean, large reception area at Woodland Hills Church, and each day the food shelf is able to help about 60 needy families.
The move to some space inside the massive Woodland Hills Church building, which was formerly a large department store called Zayre Shopper’s City, has been a boon for the food shelf.

The church is located at 1740 Van Dyke St., just north of Larpenteur Avenue in Maplewood.

“This space is huge,” says Roessler. “It really allows us to accommodate more people.”

Merrick’s food shelf now has a large team of volunteers and free accommodations.

“Woodland Hills takes a really active role in supporting us,” Roessler says.

Merrick gets weekly food donations from congregants as well as annual monetary donations to the tune of $20,000, and that’s on top of the fact that the food shelf’s volunteer base has expanded exponentially. Four years ago, Roessler said the Merrick food shelf had a handful of volunteers. Now, there’s between 30 and 40, many of whom attend church at Woodland Hills.

Where once volunteers were in substandard buildings, loading pallets of food up stairs by hand, there’s now a loading dock, and the food rolls out from the bed of a semi-truck directly into the storage rooms.

Since partnering with Woodland Hills, Merrick Community Services has seen:

• a 37 percent increase in low-income households helped

• an 80 percent rise in visits to the food shelf

• a boost in financial support, thanks to contributions from Woodland Hills

• 7,600 hours of volunteer time in 2014.

Mutual benefit

Charley Swanson, communications pastor for Woodland Hills Church, says the partnership between Merrick and the church is mutually beneficial.

Though the church had been doing a food pantry before Merrick came along, it was a bit inefficient, and relatively modest compared to the food shelf that’s in there now.

“It was successful, but we realized at some point that this was not something we had much expertise in,” Swanson says. “It was meeting some needs but not in an efficient way at all.”

So, partnering up with Merrick has been rewarding for the congregation.

Merrick is able to leverage the church’s generosity by using the money it would be spending on rent to buy additional food for families, and is also able to use financial donations from the congregation more efficiently than the church could.

With the food shelf’s connection to Second Harvest Heartland, for instance, Merrick is able to get fresh produce for the food shelf for pennies on the dollar.

Like a shopping trip

Dayton’s Bluff resident Rhonda Willis, 55, recalled the old food shelf spaces that Merrick had.

Willis has been using food shelf services provided by the organization for 15 years.

As a retired nursing assistant on disability coverage, she’s on a fixed income. On Monday, May 18, she walked confidently through the food shelf, pushing her cart and selecting a wide array of food, much like shoppers would in a grocery store. She chose blocks of cheese, grapefruit juice, salad mixes, cantaloupe, frozen meat, eggs, milk and fresh carrots.

She says the recent addition of fresh produce, provided through Second Harvest Heartland, is exciting to her, and suits her needs as a diabetic.

The food shelf has also recently started transitioning away from canned fruits and vegetables in favor of fresh goods.

The initiative has been “extremely successful,” Roessler says.

She notes that about 30 percent of the low-income families coming to the food shelf are Latino, while 13 percent are Asian -- these populations weren’t accustomed to eating canned vegetables and fruit.

Plus, canned food is expensive, she says, and fresh produce is more popular.

“I take it really seriously that they get quality stuff,” she says.

East Side connection?

Though the new food shelf isn’t on the East Side, it’s about 300 feet away from it, notes Daniel Rodriguez, director of Merrick Community Services.

He adds that the food shelf is “still serving thousands of people from the East Side.” And, with the location being just across the border in Maplewood, the food shelf was able to expand to serve Maplewood residents who cannot afford adequate quantities of nutritious food.

And, Rodriguez adds, Merrick hopes to have a second food shelf location in the East Side once the organization gets going on its new building. Plans for the building should be announced within a few months, Rodriguez says.

To make up for the absence on the East Side, Roessler says the Merrick food shelf has added mobile services that take place out of a Salvadorian church and a Hmong church.

Both churches are close to public housing and other residential buildings. Through this mobile food shelf program, Merrick serves about 100 low-income families per month.

And, Roessler notes, the Woodland Hills food shelf is on a major bus line that connects to the East Side, and the facility is accessible to people in wheelchairs. Nonetheless, the majority of the clients the food shelf serves drive their cars to get there.

Friendly host

Swanson says that the Woodland Hills members’ vision was to use the oversized building they purchased to be able to host other social service organizations.

Although they didn’t know what that would look like, they’ve come to provide space for a variety of socially minded organizations.

Twice a year, the Baptist congregation hosts Project Home, an initiative from Interfaith Alliance (formerly St. Paul Area Council of Churches) where the church turns into a homeless shelter for a short period of time.

The congregants provide space for a program for developmentally delayed adults; they host Minnesota Ready, a job-skills training program; they host two Hmong congregations that meet on weekends in the evening; and they offer free office space for a program that Catholic Charities runs in conjunction with Ramsey County that provides coordinated access to housing services.

“It’s a really great example of how churches and social services can work together,” Roessler says. “(The church has) really tied their motivation and their mission together with other nonprofit organizations.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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