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Lynette Harris was raising three school-age children on the East Side of St. Paul when she discovered that many students at her son's school — Bruce Vento Elementary — were from families struggling to put food on the table. Harris is a single mom who graduated with a degree in business from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She founded what's now Moms Food Shelf, a mobile operation that feeds about 500 low- to moderate-income people in the Frogtown, Midway and East Side areas of St. Paul.

In a recent interview with Eye On St. Paul, Harris talked about her all-volunteer food program and how she is carrying on a tradition of helping people passed down by generations of her family. This interview was edited for length.

Q: How did you get started in running a food shelf?

A: I answered an ad from a man in Indianapolis who ran a nonprofit food bank. He was looking to make connections in all 50 states, including Minnesota. ... I started picking up and dropping off food at places in St. Paul. At the same time, I was raising three children (two of her own and a niece). My son was at Bruce Vento and I was, like, 'This is economically challenged. This is bad.' As a parent, I knew I needed to do something.

Q: You started Moms Food Shelf about the same time?

A: Yes. The man in Indianapolis decided to cut back and stay in-state. So I decided to start my own [food shelf]. When I started, right away, we served 146 families a week.

Q: You don't have a brick-and-mortar location, correct?

A: Correct. We are a tiny — compared to Second Harvest [Heartland] or the Emergency Food Network — mobile food shelf. We have always been mobile. We have volunteers who go to our stores where they pick up the food and other volunteers at the sites where we deliver food and set up baskets. We are all volunteers — I don't take any money — who are dedicated to this idea. When people believe in your dream, it becomes their reality.

Q: What do you provide?

A: The food is fresh. We don't go with a lot of nonperishable items. I really believe in giving people fresh food. The reason I named it "Moms" is I'm not going to feed you what I wouldn't feed me or my kids. We get a lot of our food from Kowalski's. For eight years, we picked up food at Trader Joe's, Costco.

Q: Where do you deliver?

A: We have three sites: Two are churches and one is a senior facility [on the East Side]. We are a little unorthodox: We do this only on the weekends. But we serve 500 people and about 2,000 pounds of food every week.

Q: But you're not a nonprofit. How do you get donations?

A: I have a lot of sponsors who I have worked with over the years. A lot of people give on faith.

Q: You are also on the board of the Payne-Phalen District 5 Community Council. Why is it so important to be involved?

A: I come from a huge history — both my parents come from this history and they made historical children. [laughs]

On my mom's side, my grandmother was Native American. I am from a line of the Five Civilized Tribes [Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole Indians in Oklahoma] and Freedmen. My grandmother and her family were in the Tulsa [race] riots [of 1921.] ... And my grandfather, who had been a driver for General Patton, ran his own company for 45 years. An asphalt company in Omaha that employed every young Black male that needed a job. This is what I mean when I say that I come from great stock. And I have that responsibility.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428