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Marie Nitke/FOCUS Lloyd Schultz carries supplies to their designated spot at the food shelf last Thursday. Marie Johnson/FOCUS

Filling up: Extra food shelf donations start to come in as March campaign kicks off; need continues to rise

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Volunteers proved they were up to the task of unloading and sorting more than two tons of food at the Perham Community Food Shelf last Thursday.

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It was delivery day, an event that comes around once every six weeks. It’s an impressive operation: a semi-truck backs up to within just a few feet of the front door, and multiple pallets full of cans, boxes and bags of food from North Country Food Bank are counted and partially unpacked.

From there, narrow rollers held up by stacked milk crates help move the goods from the truck to the inside of the food shelf, where they’re all accounted for and then grabbed up by volunteers.

Like a production line at a factory, the goods keep coming, one after the next, passing through several hands before being carried to their proper places inside the food shelf. The meats end up in the freezer, flour is put with the other baking goods, fruits with the produce, and so on.

The process is slick and quick. On Thursday, the small group of just six volunteers went through 4,500 pounds of food in under 20 minutes.

That hefty supply, along with other food donations and food purchased with donated funds, will last about four to six weeks before running out and needing to be replenished.

John Leikness, director of the food shelf, said the need continues to grow. Even as the recession wanes and economic conditions in general improve, Leikness said client traffic at the food shelf just keeps increasing.

He said that’s partly due to the escalating costs of food, as well as gas. In addition, he added, a lot of new people are coming to Perham to fill open jobs. Sometimes those people spend everything they have to move here and secure a place to live, and the food shelf provides a lifeline until they get their first paycheck.

“Some people only come once or twice right after moving here,” Leikness said. “Until they get caught up, and then we never see them again.”

Most of the food shelf’s roughly 600 clients visit no more than four times a year, using it as an occasional emergency resource and not relying on it for their day-to-day grocery needs.

About 30 households a week were served by the food shelf in 2013 – a 10 percent increase over the year before, and there’s been no sign of that slowing down this year.

To help meet the rising need and accommodate working clients, the food shelf recently expanded its hours. Open every Tuesday morning from 8:30-11:30 a.m., it is now also open from 3-5 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.

Fortunately, as client traffic has grown, so have donations.

“That’s the great thing about Perham,” Leikness said. “It’s a very generous community.”

Numerous local businesses and individuals contribute to the food shelf on a regular basis, and community organizations and churches will often come together to raise funds for the cause.

Just this month, for example, St. Henry’s Catholic Church held a special Ash Wednesday collection for the food shelf, Leikness said. And businesses like Nadine’s Ladies Fashions and Karvonen’s often run specials in March in support of the food shelf.

March is Minnesota FoodShare Month, when donations made to local food shelves are partially matched by two organizations dedicated to the alleviation of hunger – Minnesota FoodShare and The Feinstein Foundation. Thus, donations made in March go further than donations made at any other time of the year.

Cash donations are stretched even further through the food shelf’s collaboration with North Country Food Bank. North Country sells food to the food shelf at a third of the cost of a typical grocery store. That means a $20 cash donation, for example, will purchase $60 worth of food for the food shelf.

“Through the generosity of the community,” Leikness said, “we were able to distribute nearly 104,000 pounds of food to over 1,400 families during 2013.”

These families consisted of about 2,400 adults, 1,400 children and 200 seniors.

But generosity doesn’t come only in the form of cash and food donations. The food shelf also has a healthy supply of dedicated volunteers, who truly enjoy their time there and are always happy to help out.

“I enjoy this,” said a cheeful Lloyd Schultz on Thursday. Schultz has been volunteering on delivery days for the past seven years.

“After I retired, if I didn’t come here, I don’t know what I’d do,” he said. “You meet people here; you get to know them.”

Jerry Hangartner, a volunteer for the past five years, agreed: “It’s a great place to volunteer your time. I like being able to help the people who really need it.”

“I like the fact that the donations stay here in the community,” added Jon Heydt.

Dawn King, who was still learning the ropes on Thursday (it was her first day as a volunteer), had already made up her mind to return.

“It’s easy, it’s close, and it’s for someone else’s good,” she said.

King had decided to volunteer after the Father of her church suggested that parishioners do something for others. She thought that sounded like a good idea, and since she had a friend at the food shelf, she decided to join the cause.

The Perham Community Food Shelf is open to anyone who lives in the Perham-Dent School District. There is no income restriction.

Generally, clients can shop at the food shelf once a month; however, no one in need has ever been turned away.

Food donations may be delivered during the food shelf’s open hours, or donors may call 346-6181 to make other arrangements. Monetary donations may be mailed to P.O. Box 7, Perham, MN 56573.

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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