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Hunger in the land of plenty: need grows deeper for Becker County Food Pantry

DEMAND IS THROUGH THE ROOF at the Becker County Food Pantry, and donations have not been keeping up with the need. March is a good time to donate cash or food because both qualify for matching funds from two sources.1 / 2
Willma Hanson from Grace Lutheran Church stocks the shelves at the Becker County Food Pantry..2 / 2

The number of people using the Becker County Food Pantry has more than quadrupled over the past 11 years, and the amount of food given out has more than tripled.

Last year, the pantry distributed 216 tons of food to more than 13,000 people.

And that was after cutting the amount of food it distributes from 41 pounds per person per month to 33 pounds per person per month.

The need isn't going away, either. In fact, the biggest jump in the number of people served occurred from 2010 to 2011, when the number jumped from about 9,500 to about 13,000.

"We ended up with a 36 percent increase in the number of individuals who came to the food pantry," said Becker County Food Pantry Director Jack Berenz. "That's a pretty big increase."

Donations were up a little over the same time period, but not nearly enough to feed all the extra mouths -- that's why the monthly allotment was cut to 33 pounds.

Berenz hopes to collect enough donations this month to perhaps raise that up a little -- to 35 or 36 pounds per month.

The Food Pantry's goal to raise 100,000 pounds or dollars during this year's March food drive --traditionally its biggest drive of the year, because donations that come in during March tap into two sources of matching funds.

Part of the reason for the shortfall last year is the Food Pantry started opening its doors to people 12 times a year instead of the 10 shopping trips a year it had been providing.

That move was required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was not an agency to be ignored, since it sells to food shelves at super low rates -- 14 cents a pound for ground beef, for example.

"We buy from them at very, very reduced prices," Berenz said.

The food pantry is also able to buy items at 16 cents a pound from the North Country Food Bank in Crookston.

"We buy as much as we can through Crookston," Berenz said. "At 16 cents it's just logical to make those kind of deals."

That's why cash is king at the food pantry. While Berenz says the food pantry is happy to accept whatever it can get -- either cash or nonperishable food items -- cash donations can go a long way towards feeding the hungry in Becker County.

"We work everything proportionally here," Berenz said. "Smaller families get smaller boxes, larger families get larger boxes -- we try to keep it so everybody is treated the same."

The food pantry also gets provisions from Cass-Clay, and Central Market submitted the winning bid for food deliveries.

Both Central Market and Walmart provide good quality food in the form of slightly dented cans or cut boxes.

"As long as the integrity of the food is good, we accept it," Berenz said. "We got over 170 pounds from Central Market the other day -- that was free."

KFC provides a food distribution to the Food Pantry once a week, and Walmart has been "extremely generous," Berenz said, providing from 7,000 to 7,500 pounds of food per month at no charge.

"Up until summer two years ago, we didn't get anything from them (Walmart)," Berenz said. "Then they set up a program (to ensure the integrity of the food) ... Now we get everything from extra bakery to dented stuff to near-dated frozen meat. Walmart has been extremely good to us... that's a lot of food."

Local churches lead the way during the March food drive, holding fund-raisers and filling paper bags distributed by Berenz. They also coordinate to provide year-round volunteers at the Food Pantry.

"We get a lot of help from churches, from businesses in the community, and from individuals," he said.

Everyone at the Food Pantry, including Berenz, works as an unpaid volunteer, so virtually all donations go towards food.

The city owns the building, located in the Becker County Fairgrounds, and provides the space rent- and utility-free to the food pantry.

There are a number of reasons that demand at the food pantry continues to rise, Berenz said. The economy has taken its toll -- all it takes is an accident or a lost job -- and the "working poor" just don't earn enough to make it from paycheck to paycheck.

"If you have 25 people come through the doors for food, it would be 25 stories about what happened," he said.

A lot of those who use the food pantry qualify for food support and other help from county human services, but many refuse to accept it, Berenz said.

Those at 165 percent of federal poverty income guidelines qualify for food support -- that means an income of $21,780 for a single person and $44,700 for a family of four.

"It's difficult to get some to sign up for food support -- some are reluctant to take advantage of these programs," Berenz said.

"We say, 'Please take advantage of these programs -- all of them,'" he added.

Cash or food donations to the Food Pantry can be made at any area church, or at the Becker County Food Pantry headquarters, located at the county fairgrounds on Rossman Avenue in Detroit Lakes, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays.