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Crunch time for Food Pantry

Becker County Food Pantry Director Jack Berenz holds a poster that illustrates that a $10 cash donation to the local pantry can buy much more food than $10 worth of foodstuffs donated to the pantry. All donations are welcome, but cash is king at the Food Pantry. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham1 / 3
A customer at the Becker County Food Pantry looks over a selection of items Tuesday afternoon. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham2 / 3
Dennis Redig loads food into a cart for a Becker County Food Pantry customer Tuesday afternoon. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham3 / 3

The number of people using the Becker County Food Pantry continues to grow — to more than 16,000 visits last year.

But Becker County was not alone. Across the state, there were 3.2 million visits to food shelves in 2013. That means on any given day, about 8,500 people were seeking help from a food shelf or food pantry in Minnesota.

Blame the economy, which continues to squeeze the middle class six years after the Great Recession hit, said Jill Martinez, communications manager for Hunger Solutions, the umbrella organization for the 300-some food shelves and food pantries in Minnesota.

With good-paying jobs harder to come by, wages stagnant and bills to be paid, food is often one place where families cut back, she said.

There was a 2 percent increase in food shelf visits statewide last year, she said.

“You will recall also that in November of last year, the food stamp-SNAP allotments were decreased,” she added. “Food shelves reported to us that they immediately saw more families seeking assistance because they had less SNAP benefits to purchase their own groceries.”

At the Becker County Food Pantry, donations have been generous, but have still failed to keep up with demand — so the pantry has had to cut back the amount of food available per family each month.

“We’re seeing another increase in the number of people coming in,” said Food Pantry Director Jack Berenz. “Already there have been 47 more families in January and February than there were last year — it looks like we’re going to have another big year.”

He said donations made to the Food Pantry this month are particularly welcome, because dollars and pounds of food are counted towards several incentive programs.

Berenz says about half the Food Pantry’s total yearly donations come in March, which is Minnesota Food Share Month — the time of year when the Food Pantry is awarded incentive funding from Hunger Solutions in Minneapolis, based on the total amount of food and cash donations it receives from the community between March 1-31.

All money and food donations must be collected, delivered and counted before April 1 to qualify for the incentive.

During March and April, the Food Pantry also applies for incentive funding from the Feinstein Foundation, based on the total amount of donations received.

Cash donations are especially useful, since the Food Pantry can use cash to shop for hamburger, canned fruit, breakfast cereal, chicken and a host of other foodstuffs, all available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 14 cents a pound.

That price is good year-round, so year-round donations are also appreciated, Berenz said.

Food shelves must provide a bare minimum allotment of 2 pounds of food per person per month, Berenz said.

Most food shelves in Minnesota provide between 20 and 30 pounds per person per month, Martinez said.

The Becker County Food Pantry now provides 27 pounds per person per month, Berenz said.

“The people of Becker County have been very, very good to us,” he said.

The Becker County Food Pantry is entirely run by volunteers, and all donations are used to buy food for local distribution.

It’s located at 1308 Rossman Ave. in Detroit Lakes (in the county fairgrounds, near the Minnesota Flyers gymnastics building) and is open from noon to 3 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

Donations can be mailed in or dropped off at the Food Pantry during its open hours. For more information, call 218-846-0142.