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After 30 years, Willmar Area Food Shelf feeding even more in need

The Willmar Area Food Shelf has a new clean room and certified staff for accepting and repackaging food donated by caterers and restaurants. Tribune photo by David Little

WILLMAR -- Individuals and families needing emergency food could begin receiving repackaged prepared food early next year for the first time at the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

The food shelf has a new clean room and certified staff for accepting and repackaging food donated by caterers and restaurants.

For example, if a caterer prepares three hotdishes for an event but opens only two, the caterer can bring the unopened hotdish to the food shelf where the food can be repackaged and either given to clients soon thereafter or frozen for later distribution.

During the past three decades, the food shelf has provided canned goods, bakery products, frozen food, bulk foods, fresh vegetables and other items to people needing food assistance.

With the clean room, the food shelf will expand its ability to accept foods that it was unable to do before, says Food Shelf Executive Director Christie Kurth.

Kurth hopes the new program will be ready to go by the first quarter of 2013.

"There is a lot of food out there that we could be accepting and now it's just for us to take those appropriate steps and make sure we're able to get the program up and running,'' she said. "It will open up a door to a different type of product that we haven't had before.''

Facilities such as the clean room -- and improvements on the drawing board -- will help the food shelf secure its future and continue to provide emergency food aid.

The public is invited to join staff and volunteers in celebrating 30 years of service during an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the food shelf, 624 Pacific Ave. S.W.

The food shelf began in 1982 when representatives of local churches and social service agencies started a temporary emergency food program. They envisioned the program to last about five years.

The first meeting to discuss the possibility of establishing a food shelf was held Feb. 22, 1982. On April 28, the plan was announced to the public. To everyone's surprise, donations of money, food and equipment came pouring in.

On July 6, 1982, articles of incorporation were signed. That year, the food shelf served approximately 60 households per month. By 2011, the number had soared to 767 households per month.

The food shelf was first located at 411 Becker Ave. S.W. In May 1986, the food shelf moved to 106 Sixth St. S.W., and in November 2006 it moved to the present location.

In September 2009, the food shelf opened a branch office in the former New London clinic. Both locations continue to serve an increasing number of families and individuals.

In 2008, the food shelf board bought the building and paid for it in two years. Kurth said the location is perfect -- right off one of the main roads -- and is easy to get to.

"We just knew that we needed to secure the future of the food shelf,'' she said.

The board looked at other needs and undertook a number of improvements, thanks to cash donations, bequests and other funding sources. The improvements include construction of an enclosed handicap-accessible entrance, purchase of a walk-in cooler and freezer to provide sufficient storage, and construction of a ramp to easily transfer food from the rear of the building to the front service area.

New paint colors have brightened the offices, and the lobby and shopping area will be enlarged for clients.

Outside, the food shelf purchased the adjacent land along Pacific Avenue between the headquarters and Seventh Street Southwest for a proposed parking lot for clients and volunteers.

In addition, the food shelf hopes to construct an enclosed receiving bay on the west side of the building to keep delivery vehicles out of the elements.

As Kurth looks to the future, she said the need for emergency food continues to increase and she thanks the community for its support.

"We're on pace to see about another 7 percent increase over last year,'' she said. "July was a record-breaking month for us. We served 925 families. In August, we served 887 families. Hopefully, things will turn around.''

Kurth said about 3,570 families are registered with the food shelf. On an average month, the food shelf sees a little less than a third of the registered families. She says not all families need the food shelf every month, while some families do need the food shelf every month.

"But the majority of people come in here when they truly need us because their car is broken down and they're already paycheck to paycheck and now with this additional expense they need us,'' she said.

"Some clients are on disability. They're on a fixed income of some sort and they've really turned to us, looking at us as being part of their monthly expenses. They know that by coming to us, they have enough money to pay for their medications or their electric bill.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150