Blooming Grounds, a café and community hub for 17 years in Winona, is working collaboratively to meet the need of local school children experiencing food scarcity due to the statewide decision to close public K-12 schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Owner and WSU Alum Amy Jo Marks ’97 said the initial idea came from a conversation that took place moments after Governor Walz made the announcement to close public K-12 schools in Minnesota. She and a few friends were enjoying coffee at Muddy Waters Studio when the news came. Her teacher friend’s thoughts immediately turned toward the hundreds of students who would no longer have access to daily meals in the school cafeteria.
Amy’s brain immediately started churning. How could Blooming Grounds make nutritional sustenance available for those kids? Coming from a family exemplifying generosity and service, she decided that a good start would be to use all the abundant staple stores to make free lunches containing cheese or peanut butter/nut butter and jelly sandwiches. A simple idea was formulated and shared out on Facebook in hopes of community engagement to get the word out and make the provision sustainable.
The people of Winona heeded the call in large numbers, “I was overwhelmed by the response, 200 replies the first day, 300 by the second, and close to 500 offers to help or donate came pouring in before the first sandwich was made.” Marks notes that local businesses donated food, such as Rochester Wholesale Foods sharing apples. Several hundred community members dropped off peanut butter, alternative nut butters, jelly, bread, lunch sacks, and chips. Dozens of others made financial donations in cash and checks. A large donation even came from as far as New York. Colleagues, managers, employees, and even a former employee all came to help make and pack just under 100 lunches for the following day. But the help did not stop there.
Due to her criminal justice and social work background, Marks recognized that not everyone would have access to the meals. Going above and beyond, the Blooming Grounds volunteer team started bringing lunches to the doors of families/children in need who did not have transportation to get to the café.
Her delivery drivers brought back stories of teary-eyed recipients expressing heartfelt gratitude. Some of the lunches were shared with families/children who had not felt it was okay to express their need but had been thought about by the volunteers.
Marks wants to have a broader reach across the community “I really want to get people the information so they can contact us.” She is planning on radio and newspaper ads, but also relying on word of mouth. She explains that people can call and have a sack lunch delivered or can simply come to Blooming Grounds any time between 11 am and 2 pm to pick up a PB&J sandwich meal.
When asked about motivation for the outpouring of care at a time of her own restaurant’s limitations, Marks shares “Our BG team is not doing any of this for attention or fame, but because it is the right thing to do. We are all human and present in this; everyone should help each other. We are more alike than we are different.” Noting the uncertainty and fear present in our current days, Marks encourages that helping others is something that can relieve the anxiety for us all.