Northern Brainerd lakes area food shelves serve fewer people as additional services abound
Only Hackensack sees huge increase
While 2020 was tumultuous for much of the world, locally an abundance of groups worked to keep people fed and, as a result, some food shelves saw fewer people requesting their services.
Area food shelf directors attribute that to more federal money available to people, COVID-19 relief checks distributed in 2020 and popup pantries occurring in the area.
“We were always ready. We just expected this great big turnout so we were always ready. But it just never happened,” said Doris Mezzenga, Crosslake Food Shelf director.
"We were always ready. We just expected this great big turnout so we were always ready. But it just never happened."
— Doris Mezzenga.
Tim Moore, executive director at the Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes, agreed: “There is an awful lot of food out there, and we’re not seeing as many people in here.”
Joanna Perry, Pine River Area Food Shelf coordinator, also said there is a lot of food available. Participant numbers at the Pine River Food Shelf in 2020 were holding their own, but down a little bit.
Mezzenga and Perry said more federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds have been available, and popup pantries - where boxed food is distributed to people in a drive-thru fashion - have been held in area communities.
“We have some people who are too proud to come to the food shelf so this way they drive up, load and go,” Mezzenga said of the popup pantries.
Moore said the need for food shelves is still there.
“We know there’s pockets of folks we’re missing that can’t get to where we are,” he said. “How can we reach out to these small pockets of people we know are in a food desert and can’t get it?”
He said federal aid may disappear at the end of April and no one yet knows if a next stimulus check will be issued, so food shelves need to be ready in case that additional support goes away.
“Our major concern is the additional assistance folks in need have been getting will be ending soon,” he said.
Perry said some seniors over age 65 and on Social Security make too much to qualify for SNAP or another federal program - Nutritional Assistance Program for Seniors - which provides boxes of food distributed through Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids to qualifying applicants.
Because those individuals do not qualify for other programs, Perry is seeing more need among those groups at the food shelf. Some days all of those who stop are senior citizens.
" There is a population that I don't think is being served and there's nothing I can do about it."
— Joanna Perry.
"There is a population that I don't think is being served and there's nothing I can do about it," she said.
The Pequot Lakes food shelf was busy in late spring and summer 2020, with numbers falling in the fall, though Moore said those numbers are increasing now. That food shelf is helping people of all ages.
In total, the Lakes Area Food Shelf is down about 15% from 2019 levels in terms of families served, Moore said. The food shelf served 135 households in January 2021, which included 91 children ages 0-17, 150 adults ages 18-64 and 50 seniors ages 65-plus.
In Crosslake, Mezzenga said the food shelf sees two to three new families every month.
“Sometimes they come back again the next month, and sometimes they just come for one month,” she said.
The Crosslake Food Shelf serves approximately 43 families every two weeks, or an average of 90 families a month. The food shelf served 2,800 senior citizens, adults and children in 2020.
“We do have quite a few seniors, but I would say our increase would be younger families,” Mezzenga said, including some families with four to five children and a couple of instances where grandparents are taking care of grandchildren.
Not all food shelves are experiencing the same decline in people served. Hackensack has almost doubled its number of clients.
"The amount of people that have come in, especially emergencies, has been up," said Cheri Westphal, chair of the Hackensack Area Community Food Shelf. "It's 8,092 versus I think around 3,000 or 4,000 last year. We gave away 40,674 pounds of food."
Westphal said the amount of food served increased by about 25%; however, she said the increase in food shelf numbers may actually be a sign of more people in the area.
"I see a number of cabins that were only open in the summertime and are now open year-round," she said. "I see the same people coming in our thrift shop, so that's how I can get those numbers a bit more."
While the number of area people served dropped, donations did not.
"Donations are doing very well," Perry said.
Westphal also said generosity has been abundant.
"Local people around the area have been so supportive throughout all this time, not just for campaigns but every month," she said. "We've been very happy with them."
"Local people around the area have been so supportive throughout all this time, not just for campaigns but every month. We've been very happy with them."
— Cheri Westphal.
The food shelf in Hackensack has two drives a year, one in October and one in March, but Westphal said something has been driving donations all year.
"People have come because of the media saying, 'Support your local food shelves and stuff,'" she said. "We've gotten a lot of money just from that and it's definitely helping. And then they tell us we need to spend some of the money they are giving us locally, so we've been able to help the local grocery stores. So that's nice."
Food shelf directors have always said that food donations are always welcome, but cash donations go a lot further because food shelves can buy much more food at cheaper prices from Second Harvest.
“If they have food they want to donate, that’s great. But cash goes much much further,” Moore said.
Mezzenga said the Crosslake Food Shelf also buys items from Reed’s Market, like eggs and meat, and the food shelf gives milk vouchers to people to use at Reed’s Market.
Area food shelves adapted their services for much of the past year to limit contact.
"We did curbside pickup," Perry said. "We had a variety of box sizes - small, medium and large - and depending on the household we would prepare a box in the food shelf, then we would prepack the box and bring it to the clients at the curb stop."
There was also a cart outside that allowed clients to pick up certain food items.
"If we're putting food in a box we want them to be able to at least say, ‘Hey, I will eat this. I know I like this."
— Joanna Perry.
"If we're putting food in a box we want them to be able to at least say, ‘Hey, I will eat this. I know I like this,'" Perry said.
Food shelves in Crosslake, Pequot Lakes and Hackensack also deliver prepackaged bags of groceries to vehicles that pull up.
"Our receiving area is so small that to stay six feet apart, we'd only be able to allow one or two people in at a time," Westphal said. "This way they stay in their car. We did a poll and they liked it this way. They don't have to sit for hours. They can just drive through and we get it ready for them. They are in and out of here pretty fast."
In November, the Pine River Area Food Shelf reopened for indoor stops; however, there are still restrictions, including social distancing and mask requirements. Those who can't wear masks can still get help with curbside pickup and the food shelf staff has increased sanitation efforts.
Moore said the Lakes Area Food Shelf lost volunteers when COVID-19 first hit, but that has since stabilized and the food shelf has a good crew of volunteers. Both he and Mezzenga gave a shout out to their volunteers.
“They’re so reliable and willing to help. I just couldn’t do it without them,” Mezzenga said.
Minnesota FoodShare Campaign
The annual Minnesota FoodShare Campaign occurs in March every year, when donations to food shelves are eligible for matching funds.
This year’s campaign runs now through April 11.
Lakes Area Food Shelf
- Address: 29316 Patriot Avenue, Pequot Lakes (just south of Grace United Methodist Church)
- Phone: 218-568-8474
- Website: lakesareafoodshelf.org
- Hours: 9 a.m.-noon Tuesdays and Thursdays; 5-7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month
- Donations: Send to P.O. Box 724, Nisswa MN 56468; donate online at lakesareafoodshelf.org; stop by when the food shelf is open.
Pine River Area Food Shelf
- Address: 245 Barclay Ave., Pine River
- Phone: 218-587-4292
- Website: https://www.prbfamilycenter.org/food-shelf
- Hours: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 3:30-6 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month
Crosslake Food Shelf
- Address: 34212 County Road 3, Crosslake
- Phone: 218-692-1004
- Hours: 9 a.m.-noon the first and third Fridays of the month
- Donations: Send to P.O. Box 253, Crosslake, MN 56442
Emily Food Shelf
- Address: 20948 County Road 1, Emily
- Phone: 218-763-3663
- Hours: 5:30-6:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month; 9:30-11 a.m. the following Wednesday
Hackensack Area Community Food Shelf
- Address: 209 State Highway 371, Hackensack
- Phone: 218-675-5862
- Hours: 5-7 p.m. the second and fourth Mondays of the month
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.
Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.