Enthusiastic volunteers from St. Paul Local 110 set up their first drive-through distribution site in February, stocked with some 39,000 pounds of USDA-provided fresh food and milk for area residents in need. They duplicated their effort in March and will host a third event this month, putting them well over the 100,000-pound mark. Collectively, St. Paul unions have distributed more than 1 million pounds of food at weekend giveaways since late 2020.

Cars stretched as far down the road as volunteers could see as they hefted 30-pound boxes of perishables and loaded them into trunks and back seats outside their Local 110 union hall in St. Paul, Minn.

Masks can’t conceal the enthusiasm of Local 110 apprentices and volunteers Luke Favreau, left, and Abigail Morrison, pictured at the Feb. 21 giveaway.

The well-oiled operation gave away more than 40,000 pounds of USDA-provided food and milk the third Saturday in February — what turned out to be the local’s first turn at a winter series of such events scheduled by the region’s AFL-CIO.

“The labor federation was very impressed by how many volunteers we had and how fast the food went,” said coordinator Logan Beere, a Local 110 journeyman wireman and staff representative.

So impressed, in fact, that they asked if Local 110 would host another giveaway in March. It was rainy that Saturday five weeks later, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers. Now they’re gearing up for a third go on April 24.

“It went so well,” Beere said after the first event. “Everybody was happy, smiling, feeling good. The volunteers are definitely excited about doing it again.”

The marketing campaign that’s preceded the events has been a feat in its own right.

Before the first giveaway, Assistant Business Manager Doug Suchanek said members relentlessly emailed, texted and called civic leaders — from the City Council to county commissioners to the YMCA — asking them to spread the word on social media.

They mailed flyers and taped them to walls in the neighborhood’s low-income apartment buildings. Beere even flew his personal drone above the union hall to record a video that helped people identify the building. It got 2,100 Facebook views. During the event itself, he shot video that he’s used to advertise the subsequent giveaways.

They started in the biting cold of late January, determined that no one in need would miss the opportunity. In every way possible, they hammered home the “what, where and when: February 13.

But winter refused to cooperate, locking Minnesota in a minus-20 deep freeze with wind chills twice as brutal in the days leading up to the event.

Rapidly retracing their steps, they scrambled to publicize the postponement and new date, Feb. 20.

That morning, in much more tolerable 20-degree weather, some 40 eager volunteers arrived to find a refrigerated semi-truck from the Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program waiting for them.

It held 1,300 prepared boxes of fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese, and another 1,300 gallons of milk. Each package contained about a week’s supply for a family of four.

In a yellow poncho on a wet Saturday in March, Logan Beere loads fresh groceries into a trunk at Local 110’s second drive-through giveaway, with member TJ Paulson at the ready with another box. Beere, a journeyman wireman and local staff representative, has helped coordinate and creatively publicize the events.

Running a forklift, Local 110 member Ed Nelson began unloading pallets, lining them up in the parking as directed by his union brothers and sisters.

By 11 a.m. they were ready go, waving in eight to 10 cars at a time, a steady flow that trickled down over the course of four hours.

Through their protective masks, volunteers asked recipients how many boxes they needed, based on the size of their families and whether they were picking up for anyone else. It was all on the honor system, no other questions asked.

“Everyone is super nice and appreciative.” said Rachel Malmer, a fourth-year apprentice wireman who helped in February and March and will be there again this month. “Some people come through and they have other people in their neighborhood who can’t get there, other families, elderly people, so they pick up extra boxes for them.”

She and Beere noted that the supplies didn’t go quite as quickly the second time, but eventually every box of food and gallon of milk were in the hands of a people in need.

Beere’s proud to report that, “This month will take us well over 100,000 pounds that that our local alone has given away.”

Their first event was featured in a labor newspaper, the Union Advocate.

“We’re extremely honored to be able to provide food to the East Side of St. Paul,” Business Manager Jamie McNamara.told the paper. “The IBEW has a great partnership with the community here, and we’re very grateful to be of service to a community that’s been so good to us. We look forward to doing another one of these in the future.”

For the St Paul region, the union giveaways hit the million-pound mark March 20 and the tonnage increases every week.

Nationally, the USDA says it’s purchased some $6 billion of fresh produce, dairy and meat products from American farmers, sending the bounty to food banks and community organizations to distribute.

"Taking a grocery bill or two off of someone's table to give them the opportunity to put their money somewhere else — to fix a tire, to take care of their kids — it's the least we can do," a St. Paul food broker explained in a TV interview. 

On those Saturdays outside the Local 110 hall, the gratitude has been palpable — and not only from recipients.

“Every person that picked up food, literally everyone, said ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’ Even our own volunteers were thanking us,’ Beere said. “It’s a been a great experience for all of us.”