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Food Shelf a space of both generosity and relationships

Paul Schmitt/FOCUS Volunteers Joan Kaelberer, left, and Judy Grelson, right, stock shelves at the Perham Community Food Shelf.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about opportunities around the Perham area for residents of all ages and abilities to volunteer and get involved in the community over this summer and beyond.

When looking to lend a hand and make new friends, many volunteers seem to gravitate toward the Perham Community Food Shelf.

While providing food for about 1,600 visiting clients in 2014, the food shelf “could not fly” without its volunteers, said the organization’s assistant director, Chris Wasche.

Those 1,600 visits amount to an average of 400 families visiting about four times per year.

There are around 30 volunteers who pitch in at the food shelf over the course of a year. Some are seasonal, helping during the summer months when they are in the area. Others help year-round, either unloading the monthly delivery truck, or helping clients pick out and load food on Tuesdays, when the food shelf is open.

There are no designated tasks; volunteers just do what they see needs to be done.

One such volunteer is Karen Williams, who has been helping out since 1992 – a realization to which she responded, “holy mackerel.”

Besides assisting clients and restocking shelves inside the building, she is one of the main forces behind the flower garden out front. Jean Storkamp, who insisted Williams is the true master gardener, also works with the flowers.

The camaraderie these volunteers share is clear. Williams, like many of her fellow volunteers, finds the food shelf to be a great social space. When they are not assisting clients, volunteers take breaks to sit around the back table socializing and sharing stories.

Joan Kaelberer, for instance, moved to Perham after she retired. Having worked at a food shelf near her previous town, she knew it was a good way to meet people, and she “absolutely love[s] it” in Perham.

Mary Orvik said she showed up one day to drop off some extra plastic bags she had, and was welcomed to start volunteering that same day.

The friendships extend even outside the food shelf; many of the men who meet monthly to help unload the delivery truck go golfing together and are part of the same golf league.

Aside from developing friends and acquaintances, the volunteers also provide a crucial atmosphere of respect and humanity to a resource that is too-often viewed as a place of desperation, said Executive Director John Leikness.

Part of this, he said, is due to the shift made about six years ago toward giving clients a choice in the food they take from the food shelf.

“We’re not just handing them something,” said Leikness. “We’re asking them, ‘What would you like?’”

As a result, Leikness said, clients actually end up taking fewer pounds of food than when they were given pre-made packages, and often will deny offers of certain items they do not need.

Wasche said the approach has allowed her to “see the friendships that develop between clients and volunteers.”

Few clients come every month, Leikness and Wasche said.

To Leikness, that means “people use the food shelf for what it’s meant for,” in emergency situations, often when an unexpected additional expense comes up, or when families are new to the area and are getting on their feet.

The result of these unfortunate realities is the distribution of about 120,000 pounds of food in 2014 – to a client base that has increased by 14 percent since 2013.

In order to meet demands, the food shelf takes federal contributions from the Department of Agriculture, as well as donations from local businesses and farmers, by whom Wasche is especially impressed. “They plant the seed, water it, weed it, pick it, and deliver it right to us,” she said.

In addition to produce donations, a community garden behind the building allows some citizens to learn gardening skills and harvest their own vegetables.

Deer hunters pitch in to the effort of supporting their neighbors as well. Last year they donated 600 pounds of venison, said Leikness.

However helpful, donations cannot cover the entire demand faced. The organization purchases much of its food from the North Country Food Bank at reduced prices, which is why donors to local food shelves are often told that a dollar donated goes further than a food item worth the same amount on supermarket shelves.

Perham is no exception. A 64-ounce bottle of fruit juice that might cost $5 in a grocery store costs the food shelf 75 cents, Leikness said as an example.

The drawback? The variety of food changes from month to month. The organization might get a bargain on ice cream one month (as they did this June), and not have it again for half a year.

Still, Leikness makes sure that staple foods and all major food groups are well-represented on the shelves in Perham.

The Perham Community Food Shelf is tucked away in the northwest corner of town, but it wasn’t always. It was first located where the Perham Focus newspaper office is now, when it began operations in February of 1985 as a community project by the 4-H club, said Sandy Fithen, one of the original food shelf directors.

The organization then moved to a space behind Photo Magic, before moving to its current location, which was built for the Food Shelf in 1995 through a drive organized by the Lions Club.

It clearly has taken quite a community effort to get the food shelf where it is today. But, Leikness said, “We’re running out of space.” He hopes to expand the current building eventually, in order to accommodate the consistently increasing need in Perham.

For more information on volunteerism, donations, or utilizing the Perham Community Food Shelf services, visit www.perhamfoodshelf.com or call 218-346-6181.

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