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Big month for food pantry

The Becker County food pantry gave out turkeys and hams on Thursday. It was the last day before Christmas the food pantry was open. Photo by - Brian Basham1 / 3
Lane Riordan volunteers his time at the Becker County Food Pantry, helping fill boxes of food that will be picked up by those in need. Thursday morning, workers said the stack of boxes would be filled and distributed by that afternoon. They collect boxes from Central Market five days a week. Photo by - Brian Basham2 / 3
Frazee-Vergas elementary students competed to raise the most money and food for the Becker County Food Pantry. They donated more than $500 and 1,500 pounds in food. Photo by - Brian Basham3 / 3

In only three years, the popularity of the food drive at Frazee-Vergas Elementary School has continued to grow, and Thursday, they dropped off nearly a ton of food and more than $500 in cash at the Becker County Food Pantry.

Third-grade teacher Jane Anderson said that three years ago, the school decided to show that "giving is better than receiving" and quit doing gift exchanges to raise money and food for those in need instead.

Each year, the competition has grown fiercer, and this year, the elementary students raised $506.34 and 1,569 pounds of food for the pantry.

The winning class earned a popcorn and movie party.

"It's a great way to think of other people and not just themselves," Anderson said. "Coming from a poor community, this was good," she added, looking at the stacks and stacks of boxes filled with food.

Anderson Coach donated the bus for the fifth- and sixth-grade student council members to bring the food to the Becker County Food Pantry.

It's good not only for the students to have a food drive to teach them about giving, but it's also good for the food pantry and those who utilize it.

"The kids are just having a ball," Food Pantry Executive Director Jack Berenz said as the kids unloaded the food.

Thursday, the last day the food pantry was open before Christmas, Berenz and his staff were anticipating a large amount of individuals coming through the door. They opened an hour early to accommodate everyone.

Besides the boxes of food given out, pantry users were also receiving a frozen ham or turkey.

"No question, they'll be gone," he said of the freezers full of meat.

The number of those served at the Becker County Food Pantry has continued to grow and isn't slowing down.

In 2010, there were 9,554 individuals served. In 2011, that number increased to 13,024. This year will see an increase as well.

"Nine out of 11 months, we're reported more" users than last year, Berenz said.

Those volunteering their time at the pantry have created a well-oiled machine. The food on the shelves is separated into fruits, different vegetables, mixed vegetables, pasta, tuna, pancake mix, condiments and other food groups.

Volunteers prepare the boxes in anticipation of those coming through the door -- whether it's boxes for one, two or three individuals.

There is also a fresh package area where there are eggs, cheese, produce and other perishable items people can pick up.

They flow through the building where people walk through to pick up their various goods, and weigh the boxes to make sure the right amount is going to each family or individual.

Berenz said they timed it and it takes three and a half minutes for one family to make it through the pantry and get their goods. That's efficient.

People who use the food pantry are given a voucher through Becker County Human Services.

Berenz said the food pantry supplied 216 tons -- or 432,000 pounds -- of food last year to those in need.

While December is a big time of the year for people donating to the food pantry, March is actually the biggest month. Incentives that month give Berenz and the other 300-plus food pantries across the state the ability to receive matching funds through the Minnesota FoodShare program.

The Becker County Food Pantry is run 100 percent by volunteers. The building and utilities are taken care of by the city of Detroit Lakes. The food pantry pays for a telephone line and office supplies. So, 98 percent of what is donated to the pantry goes back to the people of the county.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.