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Volunteers, donations keep The Bridge pantry stocked

Tina Rasmussen, a volunteer at the The Bridge Community Pantry in Perham, unpacks donations from food drives at the local schools in December. (Kim Brasel / FOCUS).1 / 3
Joan Kaelberer, a volunteer at The Bridge Community Pantry in Perham, moves boxes of fresh fruit donated to the pantry. (Kim Brasel / FOCUS).2 / 3
The Bridge Community Pantry added a mobile pantry this year, allowing it to serve the communities of Dent, Ottertail, Richville and Vergas. (Kim Brasel/FOCUS).3 / 3

Some only need The Bridge community pantry to put food on the table until that first paycheck arrives. For others, they might not eat at all if The Bridge didn't exist. Either way, Executive Director John Leikness and the volunteers at the pantry are glad to be there and provide help where help is needed.

"About 50 percent of our families are infrequent. Maybe they just moved into town and need assistance while they get on their feet, so they might come once," Leikness said. "But for others, about 26 percent, if we weren't here, they would be missing meals. They need help monthly."

Being there to provide that monthly help, whether it's even just once, is what The Bridge and it's volunteers are there for. It has over 40 active volunteers now, who Leikness said are great and very good at what they do.

Volunteers at the pantry have a variety of duties that include going around with the mobile pantry, stocking shelves, helping with the monthly truck deliveries and assisting clients with shopping on Tuesday.

When families come in to shop, they get to pick from the shelf in the different sections. There's a breakfast item area, soups, boxed dinners, tomato products, canned goods, pasta, and more. Along the way, volunteers help behind the counters and in the aisles. There are 16 decision points.

Leikness said the local companies are very generous. If they need snacks, KLN and Shearer's will send a pallet of snack items over. Central Market gives them day-old bread and pastries. "This year, someone donated $750 for us to buy turkeys and ham," Leikness said while opening a freezer that was stocked full of turkeys. "We wouldn't normally have this, but the person said they wanted people to have turkey or ham for Christmas."

The pantry tracks on a monthly basis the number of families that come through the door and 502 families made at least one visit this year. The average family size is three. Of the 502 families, 195 made only one visit to the pantry. Leikness said the number of families visiting the pantry has grown by about 8 percent each year since he's been there, but the distribution between the number of families who visit infrequently, occasionally, or frequently has remained the same.

Two significant things Leikness said they did this year were the rebranding from the Perham food shelf to The Bridge Pantry and the mobile pantry.

"The interesting thing about the mobile pantry is that 75 percent of the families we serve with the mobile pantry we've never seen before, and 37 percent of those families were seniors, compared to 8 percent here, which I didn't expect," Leikness said. "So we are reaching newer families and more seniors."

The mobile pantry goes to Dent, Ottertail, Richville and Vergas.

The shelves are well stocked right now, and Leikness said this time of year and the March campaign where the donations are partially matched are the two times of year that sustain the pantry during the slower times of year. He added that the community has been exceptionally generous this year, so he's been able to buy additional items. By the end of the year, the pantry will have distributed 150,000 pounds of food.

"People need help. We of course would prefer that everyone had enough to eat all the time and that a food pantry wasn't necessary," Leikeness said. "We prefer that our existence wasn't needed, but the fact is, we are needed, and it's a good feeling to be here."

Donations can be mailed to: P.O. Box 7, Perham, MN 56573, or dropped off at The Bridge community pantry on Tuesday mornings at 510 4th Avenue NW in Perham from 8 a.m. to noon. If special arrangements need to be made, call 218-346-6181. For more information on the pantry go to their website