Pine River and Backus: Free weekly meals to be served to those in need
There is a quiet problem in nearby communities that Simon Whitehead, Cass County health and nutrition educator, wants to help fight: food insecurity.
Recently, Whitehead became more aware of this existing problem.
"One of the workers for Cass County reported to me that people were going hungry during the federal (government) shutdown," Whitehead said. "They were kind of going check-to-check anyway. The food shelf was spiking in numbers and there was obviously a need for food."
When a chef named Christine Miller from Trout Lake Camp contacted Whitehead to talk about overstocked food at the camp, a plan began to form.
"When they have too much food and a new batch of food comes in, they would throw away food," Whitehead said. "Her daughter works for Cass County in Backus and they put two and two together and asked, 'Why can't we use rescue food (overstocked food) to feed those who are hungry?'"
With help from the Pine River-Backus Family Center, Whitehead gathered volunteers into a committee, which grew to include 18 people. With research and brainstorming, the committee began to plan for free weekly community meals at Riverview Church in Pine River every Monday, and Pine Mountaineer Senior Center every Tuesday.
The food will come not only from food overstocked from generous donors, but from a company that specializes in community meals and bulk food distribution.
"There is a company in Minneapolis called Loaves and Fishes," Whitehead said. "They are a redistribution food sender for Second Harvest (a central food bank). They do a lot of community meals and they provide food for smaller pantries that don't want crates and crates of apples."
The group will pick up deliveries of food in Aitkin and bring the food to the two distribution sites, where professional, certified chefs will prepare it. Among them is Brian Chaffee, a well-known local chef.
One of the challenges has been to get the word out to the audience that Whitehead and volunteers are preparing these meals for.
"The goal is not to feed people who already have food," Whitehead said. "The goal is to feed people who don't have a regular meal and give them at least one good, nutritious meal. I don't even care if they go to both."
The target audience is larger than people might think and includes families with children who depend on meals from school, families who cannot afford healthy food because of other family needs, veterans and senior citizens with limitations.
"There are some individuals, to be honest, who don't have fridges," Whitehead said. "They don't have cooking facilities or maybe they are seniors in their 70s or 80s who don't have the capacity to cook nutritious meals, get to grocery stores or put a good meal together. All they have to do is come to one of the two centers. There are some kids, if they don't go to school and get a breakfast or a lunch, they aren't eating. This is for families too."
The group is still looking for a pool of volunteers. Whitehead would like a big enough group that each volunteer only needs to donate two to three hours one day a month. Donations of money are also being accepted as well as overstocked food from the kitchens and pantries of restaurants, camps, resorts and other commercial kitchens.
For more information on this and more, Whitehead is the point of contact.
Community dinners will start from 5-6 p.m. Monday, April 22, at Riverview Church in Pine River with another meal to follow from 5-6 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at the Pine Mountaineer Senior Center in Backus. Community meals will continue at the same time and day every week to follow.
The Pine River-Backus Family Center is acting as fiscal agent for the community meal, so donations will be processed through that organization. The group has already received a grant from the Cass County State Health Improvement Partnership of $1,200 for a cooler being stored at the Pine Mountaineer Senior Center.
Whitehead said the county has also agreed to pay for the community meal's chef's stipend for three months, after which he hopes Loaves and Fishes will consider funding the stipend. Otherwise the stipend may depend on fundraising efforts.
To contact Whitehead for volunteer or donation opportunities, call 218-547-6843.