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Food shelves prepare for Minnesota Foodshare month

Food shelves throughout the state are preparing for Minnesota Foodshare month, when donations to your local food shelves can determine how much assistance they get for the rest of the year.

This winter has been hard for many families throughout the area. Cold temperatures paired with fuel shortages have left many individuals balancing the cost of heat with their food budget. In the Hackensack area, this is the elderly and young families more than others.

“We’ve been taking in a lot of bigger, younger families,” said Cheri Westphal of the Hackensack Area Community Food Shelf. “It went from one or two people to we have a few families that have six and eight kids. They are younger families.”

The Hackensack food shelf served 585 families in the last six months, an increase of 120 over the previous six-month period. Westphal said this may be because young families have come to the area for work, purchased homes and then lost that work.

Pine River also reported an increase of about 25 households between December and January, up to 145.

“The weather has a lot to do with it. They come in and say, ‘I have an incredible electric bill and the fuel bill is just ridiculous. There’s no end in sight,’” said Jodi Perry, Pine River Area Food Shelf coordinator.

Unlike Hackensack, Perry said the Pine River food shelf is seeing more one- and two-person households made up of young couples or individuals from ages 18-35.

At the Crosslake Food Shelf, Doris Mezzenga said the average number of families served per month in 2013 was the most since 2010, 88 per month. This represents an increase of seven families per month over the previous two years, both of which saw 81 families per month using the food shelf.

The number of seniors served in 2013 jumped by nearly 100 as compared to 2012, from 378 to 461, while the number of children up to age 17 increased more dramatically, from 655 in 2012 to 821 in 2013. Adults served remained relatively steady at 1,714, actually decreasing by 63 patrons since 2012.

The total pounds of food increased from 89,380 in 2012 to 101,508 in 2013 in Crosslake. In the first month of this year the food shelf has already given away 10,255 pounds to 282 people and 104 families. Although need generally increases during the tough winter months, these statistics put the food shelf on pace for another busy year.

The Emily-Outing-Fifty Lakes Area Food Shelf served 794 families in 2013, feeding more than 2,200 individuals with 93,846 pounds of food.

Seemingly against the trend, the Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes served nearly 30,000 fewer pounds of food to almost 500 fewer families in 2013 as compared to 2012. Still, in comparison to Crosslake, the Pequot Lakes food shelf distributed more than double the pounds of food to lakes area families at 265,694, and served an average of 265 families per month.

So far in 2014, the number of families served puts the food shelf on pace to match 2013’s numbers, but the pounds of food distributed would represent an increase of about 15,000 pounds if averaged over the year.

Manager Carey Rasinski has noticed an increase in need among the elderly, many of whom have been finding it difficult to cover the cost of their medications and healthcare. Rasinski also attributes the increase in demand to the skyrocketing propane costs, leading low-income families and individuals to make the tough decision between paying for heat or paying for food.

Most items at local food shelves are well stocked, though there are some shortages.

“We have plenty of donations coming in. We’re doing something all the time for it, but it’s a hard time finding meat out there. We buy from Second Harvest but there’s just not a lot out there,” Westphal said.

Mezzenga, who has worked with the Crosslake Food Shelf since 2006, said that despite the increase in need, the generous donations from the Crosslake community have kept the food shelf well stocked and in a great position to serve.

In fact, the generosity of the community all but eliminates the need for fundraising events surrounding the March drive. Reed’s Market in Crosslake and Pequot Lakes Supervalu are among the grocers who donate to the food shelf, and the Lions Club in Crosslake holds a food drive each year as well. The food shelf has 15 volunteers, most of whom are in their eighties.

“Our volunteers are fabulous,” Mezzenga said.

Although the Crosslake food shelf stays generally stocked up, Mezzenga is still hoping that she’ll see an increase in donations of fresh garden produce.

“You always have some extra when you have a garden,” she said. “I’d like to see some more of that here.”

Fresh fruit is always in high demand and low availability. Perry also said that Second Harvest appears to be offering less food and fewer options lately, suggesting that times are even hard for the hunger relief organization that many food shelves depend on.

“The lists are less and less for us to choose from. If we continue trying to fill the boxes then we do have to purchase stuff locally,” Perry said.

Food shelf money goes further when food is purchased through Second Harvest.

The food shelves in Hackensack and Pine River each has ways to raise more funds and food this coming month. In Hackensack, they will sell homemade cookies at the Share and Care thrift store, which shares the building with the food shelf. After a successful fundraising event in January, Pine River will look forward to the second annual Soup and Sweets event March 22 at The Warehouse in Pine River.

The Minnesota Foodshare program and Hunger Solutions use food shelf donations in March to determine need throughout state food shelves. They use this to determine how much to allocate to each food shelf. Minnesota Foodshare receives contributions from corporations, individuals and foundations and those contributions are then distributed to food shelves based on results from the March Minnesota Foodshare drive results. Hunger Solutions determines contributions to food shelves in much the same way.