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Crunch time for food pantry

Though the number of families making use of the Becker County Food Pantry hasn't seen a drastic increase over the past year, it hasn't decreased any either.

"The first half of the year, it (usage) was down, but the second half made up for it," said Food Pantry director Jack Berenz.

Becker County distributed 140 tons of food in 2005, up from 136 in 2004. The number of families served also increased, from 1,898 in 2004 to 1,942 in 2005. A total of 6,062 individuals -- most of them children -- were served in 2005.

But while the slight increase in food distribution totals does seem to indicate the need is leveling off, it's still at an all-time high, Berenz noted.

"It (the need) hasn't gone down any," he said.

Since 1999, in fact, the number of families served by the Becker County Food Pantry has roughly doubled, and the amount of food distributed has more than tripled. (Figures from 1999 show that the county served 942 families and distributed 37 tons of food during that year.)

The Becker County figures are in line with statewide trends, which show that there were 1.7 million visits to food shelves throughout the state in 2005. More than 38 million pounds of food were distributed in Minnesota during that time, according to figures released by Minnesota Food Share of Minneapolis.

Fortunately, however, the generosity of Minnesotans has kept most food shelves across the state from having to turn anyone away for lack of food, or from having to decrease the amount that each family receives.

Last year, Minnesotans raised 8.7 million in combined pounds and dollars to feed the hungry -- which amounts to more than half of the amount distributed. (According to Berenz, the 8.7 million was calculated on a one-for-one ratio: the total pounds of food collected and total dollar amount raised were simply added together.)

In order for this trend to continue, however, now is a particularly critical time for food shelves and food pantries across the state.

March is Minnesota Food Share Month -- the time of year when the Becker County Food Pantry and its counterparts across the state receive incentive grants based upon the amount of dollars and food collected during the course of the month. All monies and food items must be collected, delivered and counted before April 1 in order to qualify for the incentive.

All of the money and food collected by the 300-plus food shelves in Minnesota is added up, and the percentage of that total which is collected by each participating food shelf is the same percentage used to calculate the amount of the incentive that it will receive. It is the amount collected this month, plus this incentive, that enable the Food Pantry to stay open year-round.

"It's critical," Berenz said. "Our goal here in Becker County is to raise between 60,000-65,000 pounds or dollars -- the same as we collected last year. We're not looking for an increase, and neither is the state."

Detroit Lakes Mayor Larry Buboltz is supporting the Food Pantry's goals by issuing a proclamation declaring March 2006 as Minnesota Food Share Month in the City of Detroit Lakes. During this month, many area churches and service organizations also put together food drives to aid the Pantry in meeting its goals.

Though all donations are welcome, non-perishable food items such as canned goods, soups, baked beans, pasta, rice, cereal and "instant" foods are on the list of suggested items; personal care items such as shampoo, toothpaste, soap, razors, large diapers (for children 25 pounds and up), cleaning products, laundry soap and women's personal hygiene products are also encouraged.

The monetary donations collected are used to purchase food from a variety of sources, including the USDA, at a significantly reduced price.

Families using the Food Pantry's services must have a voucher provided by Becker County Human Services, Lakes Crisis & Resource Center, Mahube Community Council or a similar source. Each family receives a box containing a predetermined amount of certain basic foods; larger families (five people and up) can receive two or three of these boxes.

Berenz said he hasn't noticed that usage becomes significantly larger at any particular time of year.

"It's really pretty steady throughout the year," he said. Some move in, some move out of the area, but the need remains about the same.

The Food Pantry is typically staffed by seven or eight volunteers at a time. Berenz said that staff includes five full-time, regular volunteers, and another two or three provided by area churches on a monthly schedule (i.e., each church takes a turn providing volunteers for its designated month).

In fact, it was the churches that started up the first Food Pantry, he added.

"Each church had their own (food pantry)," he said. But eventually, they realized that having one, organized food pantry instead of several smaller ones would be a more efficient way of doing things, so they combined forces.

"Churches are still our biggest source (of donations)," Berenz added.

Money donations can be sent to the Becker County Food Pantry, P.O. Box 1011, Detroit Lakes MN 56502, and food can be dropped off at the Pantry itself, which is open from 1-3 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

The Becker County Food Pantry is located inside the Becker County Fairgrounds at 1308 Rossman Ave. It is the brown building next door to the Minnesota Flyers Gymnastics facility. Ample parking is available, and the entrance is located on the building's southeast corner.

If you have questions, or need further information, call Berenz at 218-846-0142.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454