The idea of volunteering in their neighborhood was not new to Nura Ahmed, 43, and Sara Aegerter, 35. The two mothers had helped others in St. Paul's Frogtown before — either delivering food to neighbors or helping grow it at Frogtown Farm.
Then they were asked to become co-coordinators of Feeding Frogtown, a free food distribution program run by the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. Now, the women are not only helping hundreds of families get food every other week, but they're also growing new connections with area farmers and food distributors to help families eat better than ever.
Eye On St. Paul talked with Aegerter and Ahmed on a recent distribution day — they work right now out of the West Minnehaha Recreation Center — to discuss what they do and why. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you get started?
NA: I started volunteering to take food to different apartments. Then, when COVID hit, I took food from the [Frogtown] farm to different houses. Then Sara came, and we started coordinating [together].
SA: We'd been involved [with Frogtown Farm] a couple years already and we realized we knew each other from the community and stuff. I had two kids and I've been in the neighborhood but hadn't been leaving my house and was going stir crazy.
Q: How many people do you think are going to come today?
SA: Up to 400. It all depends on the day. But we'll start, you know, when the line forms and continues until the end. Sometimes, we actually are not able to get to everybody because we only have a certain amount of time [3 to 6 p.m., every other Friday]. Some of them will be picking up for another family too, because we allow that. We used to have volunteers who would go deliver to, like, 40 houses. Now we allow people to pick up for others.
Q: Is there a limit on what people can take, or how much?
SA: It depends on how much we got, because we get food rescue and then we also order just a little because we're nonprofit, so we're trying to spread it as well as we can. We usually spend most of our money on meat.
Q: You have more than packaged food here?
NA: We get healthy food from local farmers. Vegetables. Milk. Meat.
SA: We're working on it. We partner with farms and other farmers they know to get them to give away produce they couldn't figure out what to do with. Donate it to us. We'll write it down for you so that you know it's going to all those in the community who truly need.
Q: Tell me the variety of food you give out.
SA: We make sure we have pretty much like a grocery store. When you come in, there are the dry goods and stuff like that because that's the cheapest and easiest to get. But we are getting the produce — from fruit to vegetables.
Q: What's the process? People line up and take what they want at no cost to them?
Q: And they fill up grocery bags or boxes?
NA: Yes. We have bag and boxes for them.
Q: Is there a weight limit or anything like that?
SA: We have volunteers [at tables] to answer any questions.
NA: Like how many bags of potatoes you could receive, depending on how much we have. We have some people who have a big family and they ask, "Can we have more?" We don't like to tell people, "No, you can't."
Q: What has surprised you about the families that you see?
NA: Nothing really. People are just so thankful.
SA: We're getting to the point where we can overstock them so they have enough food to get to the next distribution [without running out]. We're getting close to making sure they're not pressured throughout the two weeks and that there is enough to eat.
Q: What would you rather have — cash or food?
NA: I'd rather get the food and distribute that, rather than the cash.
Q: What do you say "no" to?
NA: I would say no to canned food. I would say no to food that is close to its expiration date. I would rather go directly to the farmer — like the organic farmer or the dairy farmer.
Q: You said you still get most of your food from Second Harvest Heartland.
SA: They're number one right now.
Q: You both seem very optimistic and upbeat. What has discouraged you about this work?
SA: When I first started, I was so overwhelmed by how much [rescue] food [from restaurants] we had to toss. Then, after Frogtown Neighborhood Association asked me to coordinate, I was like, "OK, let me try and get less rescue." We were having to toss so much food, volunteers were getting burned out.
NA: We can order the fresher stuff [from local farms], making sure people get carrots that will last. And raspberries that come from another farmer. Or blueberries.
Q: So you're making new connections with the same farmers who sell at area farmers' markets?
Q: You don't want people to donate boxes and boxes of macaroni and cheese?
SA: We want them. But those are the things that we order just a week's worth — so that we are offering balanced nutrition. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. I 100 percent agree with that.
Q: What is your number one need right now?
NA: Space, so we can have all this in one place. So we can have our own place, with a walk-in freezer.
Q: What is your second biggest need?
SA: A big donor.