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When money struggles push a household into a tailspin, the food shelf can offer aid

Mari Jo Stortroen, a Willmar Area Food Shelf volunteer, weighs a box of groceries that a client selected Friday from the shelves of food at the Willmar Area Food Shelf. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR — Hunger has many faces. It could be the child who can’t learn on an empty stomach. It could be working parents who can’t make ends meet on a low-wage job. Or it could be an elderly neighbor choosing between buying medicine or groceries.

Fortunately, they have a friend in the Willmar Area Food Shelf. Since 1982, the food shelf has provided food assistance to the needy, thanks to generous donations of cash and food from many sources.

Executive Director Christie Kurth says the food shelf provides an opportunity for neighbors to come together through donations, fundraising, food drives and volunteering to provide for the hungry.

Families and individuals receiving food assistance closely follow Kandiyohi County demographics: 58 percent are Caucasian, 33 percent Latino, 5 percent Somali, and 4 percent other races. About 50 percent are adults with no children.

The demographics of the Willmar area do not include a large population with disabilities; those who are chronically ill; and those who have mental health problems and addictions, among other issues.

Rich, 55, was homeless in the Twin Cities for almost 10 years before a friend found housing for him in Willmar a little over three years ago. Rich, who prefers not to use his last name, is a client who enjoys getting fresh vegetables that he says help keep his heart problem under control.

Rich can’t hold a regular job due to medical issues. But he volunteers one to three days a week at the food shelf.

“I actually enjoy doing it, even if I wasn’t getting anything. I’d probably still do it. But it’s because of them,’’ he said.

Kurth says clients use the food shelf when they need help. After increasing 135 percent over four years, usage leveled off in 2013. Now, the food shelf is seeing more struggling families, individuals lacking vocational job skills and those working fewer hours.

Kurth says a car breakdown, medical issue, higher heating bills or other problems can send them into a tailspin.

“So what happens is they may be going along just fine. Then they have higher expenses like heating and they start deciding if they can pay part of one bill or part of another. And then it just has a snowball effect,’’ she said.

Sometimes, individuals who once were donors now need assistance.

Kurth tells the story of a couple who did very well throughout their life and were donors. Later in life, the husband became ill, they spent all their savings and the wife was left with the house and not much extra money.

Finally, a family member encouraged her to go to the food shelf.

“And when she came in, from the moment she sat down at the intake desk, she apologized for being there and started crying. She felt ashamed. As our intake person took her through the process and handed her off to a shopping assistant, the assistant was very gentle with her and helped her through that process of shopping, and she kept saying, ‘I’m sorry I’m here.’’’

Kurth said the woman was pleased, overwhelmed and grateful, and kept hugging all the volunteers and saying thank you.

“We do see that quite often, especially with the older population, or somebody that was never in this position and suddenly find themselves without a job, calling in, finding out what do I need to do to get food, and almost apologizing,’’ Kurth says.

“Once they come here and realizing that it’s OK, you’re not going to be judged when you’re here. You’re going to be welcomed,’’ she said.

“We will help you through that process. We understand, even though we might not know your individual story. We understand that for many people it’s a very, very humbling experience to have to come and ask for help.’’

Read more about the Willmar Area Food Shelf and its participation in the FoodShare campaign here or at the link above.

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