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An increase of 5 percent in the number of families using the Willmar Area Food Shelf has officials and volunteers there buzzing

Garth Debba, left, and “Skip” Mellema stock shelves Thursday at the Willmar Area Food Shelf. Both are volunteers at the food shelf, which saw an increase in usage last year of 5 percent. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

The number of families who received free groceries in 2013 at the Willmar Area Food Shelf increased 5 percent from the previous year. That’s good news, according to Christie Kurth, executive director of the food shelf. Actually, the word Kurth used was “fabulous” when she gave a report Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners. Although usage is up, the 5 percent increase pales in comparison to the annual increases of 25 to 30 percent the food shelf had experienced in 2009-11.

Last year was the “least increase” the food shelf has seen in the past five years, said Kurth. “We’re seeing a little bit of a leveling off.”

Nonetheless, the food shelf is still serving more people each year and more donations and volunteers are needed, said Kurth.

The Willmar Area Food Shelf typically assists 850 families each month and last year served nearly 10,000 households.

More than 1 million pounds of food was distributed in Kandiyohi County. “That’s a huge number,” said Kurth, comparing it to 34 semi-trailers full of food.”

History of hunger The food shelf was started 32 years ago in Willmar by area churches in response to a tough economy in the 1980s.

It was expected the facility would be needed for about five years, said Kurth.

“We’re still here and still needed by our residents and our neighbors,” she said, adding that the “face of those we serve” has changed over the years.

Many who use the food shelf are families who work full-time, “hard labor” jobs but are not making a livable wage, she said.

There are many young families with children who use the food shelf, but there are also senior citizens.

She told the story of a retired farm couple in their 80s who use the food shelf because the $200 a month in Social Security isn’t enough for them to live on.

The ethnic diversity of those who use the food shelf resembles the overall population of the county, she said, with 58 percent white, 33 percent Latino and 4 percent Somali clientele.

To help reach more neighbors, a satellite food shelf was opened in 2009 in New London, where 50 to 60 families are served each month.

Responding to requests from instructors at Ridgewater College who saw their students struggling financially, the Willmar Area Food Shelf last year began making groceries available at the Campus Ministry building two days a week.

It’s run primarily by student volunteers from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Tuesday and Wednesday.

The service has been especially helpful for non-traditional students, including parents who are taking classes while trying to support families, said Kurth.

“It’s hard to go to school and make ends meet,” she said.

Commissioner Roger Imdieke applauded efforts to reach out to college students.

Imdieke said he was one of those non-traditional students that relied on government surplus food commodities while he was in college and trying to support his young family.

So far about 50 people have used the campus food shelf. Statistics from the Ridgewater site indicate students are “only coming when they really need us,” she said.

Community partners The Willmar Area Food Shelf teams up with other local nonprofit agencies to augment programs to distribute food to hungry children and families.

Kurth said, for example, the food shelf works with United Way’s Growmobile, a mobile preschool, to provide a breakfast program and also works with Safe Avenues, the regional agency based in Willmar that provides services to victims of domestic abuse. The food shelf also provides 22 backpacks of food to Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City students twice a month. “We truly do work together because we work with many of the same clients,” said Kurth.

The food shelf is also exploring purchasing a box truck jointly with the Harvest Community Church for both entities to use to transport donated food from the Twin Cities.

March is Minnesota FoodShare Month, when there’s a big push to raise funds to keep the food shelf stocked.

The Willmar Area Food Shelf hopes to raise $200,000 and 50,000 pounds of food next month.

Willmar Area Food Shelf -In 2013 the Willmar Area Food Shelf served 10,000 households

-More than 1 million pounds of food was distributed in 2013 in Kandiyohi County

-A $10 cash donation can feed a family of three for three days

-2014 goal: Raise $200,000 in cash and 50,000 pounds of food

Mission: Responding collectively using community resources to relieve the suffering of poverty by providing food assistance.

Vision: Hunger is no longer a barrier to the health and well-being of people in Kandiyohi County.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750