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Willmar Area Food Shelf begins March campaign to raise funds and food for poor

Doug Wambeck, a volunteer from Willmar, sorts the shelves Wendesday in the back room of the Willmar Area Food Shelf. The food shelf is beginning its annual March drive to recruiting thousands of organizations and individuals to raise cash and food to feed needy individuals and families. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The nation's economic downturn makes community support for feeding the hungry poor more crucial than ever for the Willmar Area Food Shelf as the annual Minnesota FoodShare March Campaign begins.

FoodShare, founded in 1982 according to the organization's Web site, is a program of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, recruiting thousands of congregations, businesses, civic groups and schools to raise cash and food to feed needy individuals and families.

"With the state of economy, we have seen more of our neighbors in need of food assistance,'' wrote Christie Kurth, Food Shelf executive director, in a letter to potential local and area donors.

The Food Shelf, also established in 1982, saw a 28 percent increase in the number of families needing food assistance from 2007 to 2008.

"For many people, jobs and wages don't match up to the increase in the cost of living,'' Kurth said. "For anyone struggling to make ends meet, it's inevitable that 'something's gotta give.' 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.''

In an interview, Kurth said the Food Shelf's 2009 goal of collecting 120,000 pounds of food and dollars is unchanged from the past three goals.

Kurth said the Food Shelf never reaches the goal in March, but eventually reaches the goal later in the year. During last year's campaign, the Food Shelf collected 39,780 pounds of food and $51,498 in cash and ranked 23 out of approximately 400 participating Minnesota food shelves and food pantries.

Food donations help a family eat balanced, nutritious meals by mixing and matching items.

Cash donations help the Food Shelf stretch the dollar by purchasing food from Second Harvest Food Bank for a low maintenance fee of 4 to 16 cents per pound of food. Each dollar contribution buys 5 pounds of food. A $5 donation feeds a family of 5 for 3 days.

Kurth praises the community's support for the Food Shelf.

"The community has always really stepped up behind the Food Shelf, has really taken us under consideration, whether it's church groups or other civic organizations, even school groups have always seemed to think of the Food Shelf when they're looking at different organizations to help support,'' she said.

Churches provide 27.5 percent of all financial support, followed by individuals with 16.2 percent, grants and trusts with 15.4 percent, and Kandiyohi County and FEMA with 10 percent. The remaining is provided by Minnesota FoodShare, civic and community groups, state funding, local businesses and Kandiyohi County.

During the first year of operation, the Food Shelf served approximately 60 households per month. In 2008, the Food Shelf served an average of 489 households per month. October 2008 was the record month with 604 households served.

In 2007, the Food Shelf distributed 443,585 pounds of food to 4,594 families (households), 6,502 children up to age 17, 7,968 adults ages 18 to 64, and 220 seniors age 65 and older.

In 2008, the Food Shelf distributed 511,198 pounds of food to 5,871 families (households), 8,011 children up to age 17, 9,898 adults ages 18 to 64, and 329 seniors age 65 and older.

Food Shelf recipients include a laid-off worker running out of unemployment benefits, a worker with reduced hours and wages no longer meeting his or her needs, a family with major medical expenses, and a teen mother trying to finish school and provide for her child.

Statistics show 58.1 percent of clients are Caucasian, 33.7 percent Latino, 4 percent multi-racial, 1.6 African American, 1.1 percent American Indian, and 1.5 percent Somalian.

More than three-fourths -- 76 percent -- of households receive some type of assistance; 60 percent of households have at least one employed adult, 43 percent are children under 18 years of age, and 15 percent are retired or have a disability that prevents them from working.

This year's budget is $175,000, up about $30,000 from 2008. Kurth said most of the increase will pay for replacement of the roof and air conditioning/heating/cooling system. The Food Shelf has obtained bids and is applying for grants.

Kurth says hunger never takes a vacation.

"It's really sad to see some of the families come in that have always been able to get along and all of a sudden now are really in a situation that they didn't think they'd ever be in,'' said Kurth.

"It's a time we'll be able to help our neighbors get through and then hopefully there will be a turnaround in the economy and things will get better.''