Twenty-eight years of generous community support have enabled the Willmar Area Food Shelf to provide emergency food assistance to thousands of Kandiyohi County families and individuals, according to Food Shelf staff and volunteers.
A 25-year volunteer says assisting clients, stocking shelves and taking inventory is not difficult because she knows everybody will be served.
"I don't know if there's ever been a time that I've been here that we haven't been able to serve a client, and that's cool,'' says the volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous.
The Food Shelf was started in 1982 as a temporary emergency food program for the needy.
Organizers envisioned the program would last about five years. But the need grew. The number of households served has increased from about 60 per month in 1982 to an average of 578 per month in 2009.
"I wish that it wouldn't have grown as exponentially as it has,'' the volunteer says. "I think that would have been the dream of those who started it way back, too. But it has because the support in the community has been just wonderful.''
The Willmar Area Food Shelf is again requesting community support during the 27th annual Minnesota FoodShare campaign that began Monday. The campaign began in the metro area in 1983 and expanded statewide in 1984.
During the March campaign, hundreds of food shelves and food pantries across the state will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and pounds of food to ensure emergency food supplies are adequate all year long.
The Willmar Food Shelf has set this year's goal at 140,000 pounds and dollars, up from the goal during the last four years of 120,000 pounds and dollars combined.
Food Shelf Executive Director Christie Kurth said the goal was increased because the number of families needing assistance has increased 45 percent during the past two years due to the economic downturn.
In a letter to donors, Kurth wrote that jobs and wages don't keep pace with the increase in the cost of living.
"For anyone struggling to make ends meet, it's inevitable that something's gotta give,'' Kurth wrote. "Unfortunately, too many people are feeling the pain of the economy and with all indications this is the start of a long road ahead of us.''
She said Kandiyohi County hasn't seen some of the large layoffs or business closings that can affect 70 percent to 90 percent of an area's work force.
But the Willmar Food Shelf has been able to meet the local need, thanks to community support.
"It's amazing,'' she said. "When we put the word out as other nonprofits do in our area, when there is a need and we're really looking for the assistance or help to meet that need, it seems like our residents around this area really step up and help us out.''
The number of families (households) served has increased from 5,871 in 2008 to 6,947 in 2009, and the amount of food distributed increased from 511,198 pounds in 2008 to 634,457 pounds in 2009.
Besides distributing donated food, the Food Shelf uses cash donations to buy food from the Second Harvest Heartland Food Bank in St. Paul at a cost of 4 cents to 16 cents per pound. A $5 donation feeds a family of 5 for 3 days, said Kurth.
"If we couldn't purchase food through them, we wouldn't be able to continue to meet that need,'' she said.
In addition, Second Harvest obtains items that stores might discard because the sale date has expired but still have value and can be used by food shelves.
"When we get it, it might only have another couple of days or a few days on it. But our clients that are coming in today will eat it today or eat it tomorrow,'' said Kurth. "So it is still good for our clients.''
To better serve clients in northern Kandiyohi County, the Food Shelf opened a New London office on Sept. 15, 2009. The office is an extension of the Willmar office and is working well.
"We will ensure that there's food at the location,'' she said. "We have ensured that the rent is paid. We ensure that the people using the location get the same service that they get at the Willmar location and visa versa. We work seamlessly. We're basically one in the same but a different location.''