WILLMAR -- By 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Susan Boonstra had quickly zipped from freezer to cooler to shelves stacked high with dry goods to collect and box hundreds of pounds of food at the Willmar Area Food Shelf.
As soon as she finished assembling three days' worth of food into a box, which was carried out by a woman from a six-member family on the other side of the counter, Boonstra began filling a box for the next family sitting patiently in the small waiting area.
"There's a long line out there," said Christie Kurth, food shelf director, as Boonstra began putting items in the box. "We are giving out lots of food."
When it comes to people walking through the door seeking assistance this year, "We've seen a huge increase," Kurth said.
Compared to the same time a year go, the Willmar Area Food Shelf has seen a nearly 20 percent increase in usage, Kurth said.
So far in 2008, the Willmar Area Food Shelf has given away 508,580 pounds of food to 5,305 households, which includes 426 new clients.
Kurth is concerned that the need will continue to grow during 2009 as the economy continues to falter and as the state makes budget cuts in response to a $5 billion deficit.
"Do you need milk today?" Kurth asks the woman who was next in line. "Shortening? Flour? Rice? Margarine? Peanut butter?"
After going through a checklist of the nine basic staple food items the food shelf provides to everyone, and asking if the family has any allergies or has a special medical diet, the box is filled with whatever is on the shelves.
Efforts are made to follow the food pyramid to provide vegetables, fruits and protein, like frozen meat, Kurth said. This week the food shelf had whole frozen chickens and one-pound packages of hamburger to give out.
Bread, donated by the Cub Food store in Willmar, is given to everyone.
Each family receives enough food for three meals a day for three days, plus some snacks, Kurth said.
The increasing requests for food assistance would be overwhelming if the donations weren't also increasing.
"Thank goodness the residents in Kandiyohi County are so generous. We've had wonderful donations food-wise throughout the year," Kurth said. "We have not seen a decrease in donations. We've actually seen an increase."
This year nearly 20,000 pounds of fresh produce was donated by area gardeners. Local churches had successful food drives and provided "wonderful donations."
Local businesses, like Cash Wise that donates "thousands of pounds" of goods each week and Cub Foods that donates bread that's given out with each box of food, help meet needs.
And every day Kurth is astounded by letters that arrive in the mail with checks. This week there were two $500 donations.
"We've been blessed with so many wonderful donations," she said. "I cry almost every morning out of gratitude."
Even with the economy that's forced everyone to tighten up expenses, Kurth said people are donating more to the food shelf to "meet the needs of our neighbors" and "give a little bit of hope for those in need."
Cash donations allow the Willmar Area Food Shelf to meet community needs by purchasing food at a low cost from Second Harvest Food Bank. A $5 donation can feed a family of three for three days.
Donations of food are also needed.
At this time there is a special need for:
? Canned fruit
? Boxed potatoes
? Spaghetti sauce
The Willmar Area Food Shelf isopen from 8 a.m. to noon and from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at 624 Pacific Ave. S.W. in Willmar.