How a homeless man turned a sandwich into a million sandwiches

How a homeless man turned a sandwich into a million sandwiches

How a homeless man turned a sandwich into a million sandwiches

Food insecurity in Minnesota is not getting better, even as we have emerged from the pandemic. New data from Hunger Solutions shows from January to July of 2023 Minnesotans made more than 4 million visits to food shelves — nearly a million more visits than the year before.

The leader of one organization is uniquely qualified to tackle the problem. It’s a story about how a homeless man turned one sandwich into a million sandwiches.

Making a sandwich is something most of us don’t think much about. Not Kiley Benson. Every time he makes a sandwich, he’s reminded about his past.

“No. I mean, it’s every moment of a sandwich kind of takes me back to the last 10 years for sure,” Benson said.

Benson became executive director of the hunger-fighting organization Loaves and Fishes nine months ago, something he never imagined 10 years ago when he was homeless.

“I was at the end of my addiction,” Benson said. “I got a divorce in 2008, and in 2013 I ended up homeless, losing everything, living in and out of encampments and in other people’s homes.”

He started making sandwiches when he got sober.

“Feb. 14, 2014, is when I decided that there needed to be a change in my life,” he said. “And so I found my way, through the help of my mother, into Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge. That turned into a living situation in the transitional homes of Serenity Village, which led me to the overnight sandwich artist position at Subway.”

Benson worked at the Subway in Plymouth.

“One of my jobs was to take the unsold bread every night and take it all back and throw it away,” Benson said. “I quickly realized that there was way much more to do with this bread. So we gathered the bread together and went out and found other fixings. We’d take it down to the local shelters in Minneapolis and St. Paul and the random encampments that would be popping up.”

He called them Serenity Sandwiches because volunteers, also in recovery at Serenity Village, would help make them. In 2016, Benson met Loaves and Fishes Director of Operations Emily Carpenter at a produce giveaway in north Minneapolis.

“He asked if we ever had any leftover food, any leftover produce anything that we could take off of our hands and redistribute,” Carpenter said. “First off, I thought, ‘Is this too good to be true? You’re willing to take anything and everything?’ And from there we created an amazing partnership.”

Carpenter was a big supporter of the Serenity Sandwiches.

“I believe it fills a gap in our neighborhoods,” she said. “People need food everywhere and anywhere. They’re pre-packaged meals, pre-packaged sandwiches, healthy, and they can eat them whenever, wherever they are.”

Turns out Kiley Benson was doing food rescue before it became a big thing. When Carpenter left Loaves and Fishes in 2017, his life changed forever.

“So here I’ve been making sandwiches and collecting produce and one day I realized Emily was no longer going to be with the organization,” Benson said. “So I got in touch with Cathy Maes to ask about a job opportunity. And two hours later God opened the largest door of my life to date.”

Cathy Maes is the former executive director of Loaves and Fishes. Her reaction when Benson asked for the Director of Operations job? “I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s start today.'”

Maes had no concerns about his past. In fact, she believes it prepared him for the job.

“Oh for sure, yes,” she said. “Empathy, love, caring. That’s Kiley.”

When Maes retired, she made a recommendation to the Loaves and Fishes Board of Directors: “Kiley can do my job. Hire him.”

In 2023, Loaves and Fishes will serve 5.2 million free meals in 15 Minnesota counties. They have commercial kitchens that make meals out of large quantities of rescued food.

Sandwiches are still part of the solution. Every Monday, volunteers at Serenity Village make 3,000 of them. 

This all started with one sandwich eight years ago; Benson says they made sandwich number 1 million this month. They are distributed in schools, shelters and homeless encampments. But to him, it’s more than just a sandwich.

“Absolutely. There’s a tag on each of these sandwiches that says, ‘Know you are loved.’ And it was thought up in that exact idea,” Benson said. “It’s far more than a sandwich. It reminds somebody that they are loved. It’s a hand up hopefully, not just a handout.”

A million sandwiches later, Benson hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He’s uniquely qualified to understand the need and now leads Loaves and Fishes, fighting hunger one meal and one sandwich at a time.

Loaves and Fishes relies on donations and hundreds of volunteers to help them feed Minnesotans.  If you’re interested in helping, click here.