MINNEAPOLIS — In a challenging year, the Vikings made their annual Thanksgiving food drive bigger than ever.
The organization partnered with UnitedHealth Group to distribute 1,500 meals via drive-through outside U.S. Bank Stadium on Tuesday, providing smiles and warm meals to families in the Twin Cities.
"This will be our largest in history with 1,500 meals," said Vikings Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller. "This year with COVID, we're proud to partner with UnitedHealth Group to expand the distribution and meet more needs of members of our community.
"We know that this year, Thanksgiving is going to be unique and challenging for all of us to try and keep safe and healthy," Miller added. "I want to thank all of the volunteers packing and distributing the meals … U.S. Bank Stadium is the perfect location for us to do that in a socially distanced manner and allow members of the community to drive through and pick up their meals."
Vikings and UnitedHealth Group donated 1,500 complete Thanksgiving meals at U.S. Bank Stadium this week to local families in need.
Brett Edelston, the CEO of UnitedHealth Group Minnesota, added: "We are very proud to be here today. Food insecurity is always a big issue in Minnesota. Usually it's about 1 in 10, but this year it's 1 in 8. For us to be able to do our small part for one holiday meal, it's really meaningful."
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was also on hand to help pack meals and distribute them to families in need. He credited the Vikings for their longstanding support of the community.
"The Vikings have been doing this particular food drive for a number of years now," Frey said. "But this year, with a global pandemic and an economic downturn and so many people that are struggling to make ends meet, it's all the more essential to make sure people have food on their plates.
"There are people who do not know where they're going to get their next meal from, and the Minnesota Vikings have stepped up in beautiful fashion yet again," Frey added. "This is what the Vikings have been all about for quite some time, and we're proud to partner with them."
The work started Tuesday morning as dozens of volunteers arrived before 8 a.m. to begin packing bags with pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, stuffing and crescent rolls.
The main item of the meal — the turkey — was handed to families when they received their bag of food in the drive-through.
Seven Vikings Legends — Hall of Famer John Randle, Ben Leber, Mike Harris, Ryan Hoag, Brooks Bollinger, Tuineau Alipate and Marqueis Gray — helped pack the meals.
Leber explained how the group was lending a helping hand.
"We're here packing all the goodies: pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, all the fixin's," Leber said. "We've got quite the assembly line of workers … so we're working fast and working hard. We're happy to help.
"It's hugely important [to help out] … but the weight of it is even more important now with the pandemic and people losing jobs, the economic downturn," Leber added. "All that stuff is real — you see it in the numbers and statistics — so to come out here and help out for a few hours and know you're going to provide a healthy meal on Thanksgiving and have a sense of normalcy for these families, it's the right thing to do."
Harris, who started 21 games at tackle and guard in Purple from 2014-15, added: "Just from what I'm seeing … a lot of love, a lot of volunteers working hard to get these meals passed out. I've been able to meet a lot of cool people that genuinely care about the community and just want to give back. A lot of people out there are in need, so it's great that the Vikings are doing their best to give back."
Of the 1,500 meals distributed, more than 300 of them were loaded onto Vikings Table — the Minnesota Vikings Foundation's charity food truck — to ensure those with inadequate transportation would also receive a meal. Vikings Table has distributed more than 16,000 meals since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Frey said he was proud of how numerous community groups came together to support those in need.
"This is a time as a city, and as a state, to band together," Frey said. "There are things that are far more important than us alone, and we need to look out for those among us who are struggling the most, especially through this pandemic."
Harris said he was looking forward to having a meal of his own Thursday. But when he does, he will think of those he and others helped earlier in the week.
"I absolutely will," Harris said. "Thanksgiving is about coming together. I know things are hard now and people can't all come together as a big family … but [hopefully] people can get the meal and enjoy it and say that it came from love and the Vikings."