Ruby’s Pantry: from humble beginnings to rapid expansion

Lyn Sahr sometimes laughs when he recalls the story of how Ruby’s Pantry came into being.

Sahr, a former pastor and executive director of Home and Away Ministries, which runs Ruby’s Pantry, a community outreach food distribution program, explained how Ruby’s Pantry started about 10 years ago.

NW Ruby's PantryAt that time, Sahr was involved in mission trips that went to Monterrey, Mexico.

When he and others in the mission group made the trip, they often tried to bring with them toys for the children they would encounter on the streets.

“What happened was we were getting some things from some other organizations who were getting them from Hope for the City, which is a nonprofit in the Twin Cities,” Sahr said. “These other organizations didn’t want to continue getting stuff from Hope for the City because they didn’t have a use for it and they had to pay an annual fee.”

So in 2003, the mission group incorporated and became Home and Away Ministries, a nonprofit, to keep receiving toys to give to the children.

But when Sahr made his first trip down to Hope for the City in St. Louis Park, he found that the organization supplied more than just toys and trinkets.

“On our first trip, they filled our pickup full of food,” Sahr recalled. “No one had ever told us that they had food. We were not expecting that at all.”

He added, “We laughed all the way back to Pine City. The joke was on us, so to speak. We were just kind of numbed by it because we were so caught off guard.”

When Sahr got back home, he realized he had a bit of a problem on his hands: What should be done with the food?

Finding a use for the food

“We didn’t think in terms of throwing it out and being disrespectful because food is important to people, so we started looking for people who needed the food,” Sahr said.

Sahr had a local connection with a person he thought might be able to help.

“The first person I called was a real estate agent in Pine City; her name was Wendy Johnson,” he said. “I called Wendy because I knew her and her family quite well, and I said: ‘Wendy, do you know anybody who needs food? We’ve got a bunch of food and we need to get rid of it.’ She said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do know somebody who needs food.’”

Johnson dropped the food off at the home of a young mother who was struggling financially.

“Wendy set the two boxes of food on the steps and knocked on the door. The mother came to the door, burst into tears, Wendy burst into tears, and they hugged each other on the steps,” Sahr said. “That was the first food we ever handled. “When Wendy got back into town, she said, ‘This is the most emotional experience I have ever had in my life.’”

More food, no toys

Over the course of the next few weeks, Sahr and others from Home and Away Ministries visited the Hope for the City distribution site in hope of procuring toys to bring to Mexico, but that’s not what was available.

“We went down the next week and got more food, no toys,” he said. “Went down the next week and got food, no toys — the next week, more food, no toys.”

After a few trips, someone at the distribution center asked Sahr what he called his food distributing organization. Truth be told, he didn’t have a name at that point, but one came to mind when he was prompted.

“My knee jerk reaction was, ‘I guess we’ll call it Ruby’s Pantry.’ Ruby was my grandmother, and she was a very wonderful lady who had nothing; she was very poor.

“But she helped a lot of people, fed a lot of people. She had a lot of people at her house at mealtime.”

So Ruby’s Pantry worked to distribute food for people in cooperation with a St. Paul organization until 2005 when it branched out and bought a building at 39404 Grand Ave. in North Branch.

Fast growth

The first month, Ruby’s pantry, asking a $12 donation for the ample amount of groceries it was offering — that suggested amount has now increased to $15 — served 14 people.

The next month, that number increased to 58.

The third month, more than 100 people showed up, and by month four, Ruby’s Pantry was serving 300 people in Chisago County and surrounding areas.

Since that first year, the faith-based organization, which partners with local churches, has grown rapidly, more than doubling in size.

By September, Sahr estimated Ruby’s Pantry will be serving 12,000 people per month from the Dakotas to central Wisconsin. The organization has fewer than 40 paid staff and relies heavily on volunteers.

Sahr noted that at some Ruby’s Pantry locations, there are more volunteers than the staff know what to do with, so they have them scheduled to volunteer in shifts.

However, he said Ruby’s Pantry could use more volunteers at the North Branch location.

Those who would like to volunteer with Ruby’s Pantry can call 320-629-7400 or email [email protected] .org.

For more information about Ruby’s pantry, visit

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