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Fighting hunger in Otter Tail County: Fundraiser to be held Jan. 29

While some in Otter Tail County are faced with the decision of what to make for supper tonight, others are wondering if they'll have supper tonight.

Hunger is a worldwide epidemic that is also a problem right outside the door.

About 10 percent of Minnesota households don't have the food they need, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The good news is civic-minded groups like Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger in Otter Tail County are working to make sure each person has food on the table.

Recognizing the need

Formed in November of 2008, the group is focused on raising awareness and funds. Its purpose is to support the seven Otter Tail County food shelves, fund the Otter Tail County backpack program to feed hungry children on weekends, promote stewardship, listen to community needs and create partnerships in the community.

"We're a group of friends around Otter Tail Lake that got together and wanted to do something that benefits the community," according to member Leif Hemstad.

Hundreds of people have been willing to help either with time or funds, including people of all ages.

According to Bernie Steeves, member of Friends of Friends, the cause brings people together. One way this is shown is through the backpack program, which gives a backpack full of food each weekend to children in need.

"The backpack program has really come on strong," Steeves said. "I don't think we all understood how bad the hunger is in this county."

Hemstad agreed.

"Every day we learn less," he said. "We know we have so much more to learn."

Getting involved with the backpack program, either by donating funds, food or time, is a way to truly make a difference in a child's life, the group explained.

"The backpack program addresses needs every day," Steeves said. "I wish we could do more to find a way to make sure everyone has food every day."

As of Feb. 5, all eight school districts in Otter Tail County will be enrolled in the backpack program. Those wanting to get involved may contact their district superintendent. Sponsoring a child for $144 will provide food for him or her for a year.

Friends of Friends also sponsored a food drop in August and September, where 169 people were served food.

Seeing the faces of hunger

For members of Friends of Friends, it's the stories that get to the heart of hunger in the area. Members told stories of parents who had to choose between using gas money to go to the grocery store or take their children to extracurricular activities. Also of children that without the backpack program would have little other food for the week.

It's these stories that drive folks to take action, according to group members. But how to get started? Hemstad suggested, depending on the town, starting with the local food bank, school district or religious organization. Pastor Phil Holtan and Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham is one route, another is United Way of Otter Tail County. Contacting Jane Patrick with Otter Tail Family Services Collaborative is another good source, Hemstad said.

Donating to the local food bank is also a way to get involved, Hemstad said. Steeves gave a statistic that for every $1 donated to the food bank, nine meals can be made. Visits to food banks have opened the organizers eyes to what the face of hunger looks like.

"The majority of people attending are the working poor," Hemstad said. "It's families. It's all of us. They look like is, they're just trying to survive."

The organizers explained that asking for help isn't always easy for many in the Midwest. Getting help from the area food shelves or other means is all done with confidence, Hemstad said.

"It's all confidential, with dignity," Hemstad said.

Third annual fundraiser

The group will hold its annual fundraiser on Saturday, Jan. 29 at Thumper Pond Resort in Ottertail.

The social is set to begin at 6 p.m. with dinner to follow at 7 p.m., then the live auction at 8 p.m. A continuous silent auction will be going until 9 p.m.

A dance featuring The Shakers is slated to begin at 9:30 p.m. Event fee is $50 per person or $100 per couple. The fee includes a meal and two drink tickets. Anyone interested in attending is asked to e-mail For tickets call Kathy or Rob Bope at 218-367-3640.

The event typically brings in up to $65,000. Up to 250 people are expected to attend. The goal is to raise $75,000, up from $23,000 where the group started.

"If we can raise even $65,000, we'd be stewards of $150,000," Hemstad said. "It is just mind-blowing."

All of the money raised goes directly back to the causes.

"Nothing is taken out of this," Bope said. "All of the printing, baskets for the auction, everything is donated or paid out of our pockets."

Those wanting to donate to Friends of Friends may do so by sending checks to: The United Way of Otter Tail County, c/o Friends of Friends, PO Box 54, Fergus Falls, MN 56538. Donating to the organization may also be done online.

Local vendors and suppliers are very supportive of the event, donating all the items for the auctions.

"It's definitely a community project," Steeves said.

Auction items include designer purses, a Jet Ski rental, a dock and lift installation, gift certificates, Trollwood tickets, Bison football tickets, autographed Bison memorabilia, an aerial photo of Big Pine Lake, work of local artisans, dinners and much more.

Thumper Pond is located at 300 Thumper Lodge Rd. in Ottertail.

Core organizers of the Jan. 29 event include: Ed and Georgia Pullen, Larry and Sue Krohn, Paula and Val Dietz, Kim Peterson, Arne and Neil Gudmestad, Kristen and Leif Hemstad, Dave and Sue Sethre, Connie and Woody Caspers, Bernie and Patty Steeves, and Kathy and Rob Bope.