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Time to donate to Food Pantry -- donations are matched in March

Volunteering at the food pantry

How hard did Minnesotans get hit by the great recession of 2008-2009?

Just look at the amount of food provided to Minnesota through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's TEFAP food assistance program to food pantries and soup kitchens: In fiscal year 2008 Minnesota received $2.9 million in hamburger, canned fruit, and a whole grocery list of other foodstuffs provided by the USDA.

That nearly tripled to $8.3 million the following year, as mass layoffs rocked the state.

The amount has declined each year since then to a projected $4.9 million for the 2012 fiscal year.

But the number of people served by the Becker County Food Pantry is not going down.

It has more than doubled from 2007 to 2012 -- from 7,432 people in 2007 to 15,607 people last year, according to Food Pantry Director Jack Berenz. Demand just keeps growing.

The number of people served went from about 13,000 in 2011 to about 15,600 last year.

"We had quite a year last year when you figure it out -- it was a tremendous increase," he said.

The food pantry has coped with the huge local increase in need as best it can, at one point drastically lowering the amount of food distributed, and later expanding the program by 20 percent to serve people once a month.

(People had been eligible to use the pantry five out of six months, but the USDA requires food pantries to provide monthly service in order to receive its heavily discounted foodstuffs.)

One thing is clear: How much the food pantry provides is dependent on the amount of food and cash donations it receives. One pound of donated food equals $1 for matching purposes.

March is the one of the best months to donate to the food pantry, since it receives matching incentives from Hunger Solutions of Minneapolis.

The food pantry also submits its donations from March and April to the Feinstein Foundation of New York, which gives $1 million a year to be divided among food shelves.

The Becker County Food Pantry received $400 or $500 from the foundation last year -- no small potatoes, since it can buy all sorts of canned and frozen food from the USDA distribution center in Crookston for 16 cents a pound.

That's why cash donations are as good or better than food donations.

Local churches are big food pantry supporters, providing donations and volunteers to supplement a core group of a half-dozen people who help out regularly.

Local businesses like Central Market, Walmart and KFC have stepped up to help with food donations. Berenz and other volunteers make regular rounds, picking up food in the food pantry's 2004 F350 enclosed cargo truck.

The truck and licensing cost $7,700, and an anonymous donor provided more than $5,700 of that, Berenz said.

The truck prevents the spoilage of produce that sometimes resulted from transporting in open pickup trucks, he said.

"It's a real nice deal, we no longer have to make two or three trips (to the same location)," he said.

But even with the help of donations from food retailers, the amount of food provided at the food pantry per person per month has dropped from 41 pounds 12 years ago to 33 pounds today.

It would be down to about 28 pounds without help from the local businesses, Berenz said.

People are allowed to use the food pantry once a month. (It's open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons) and by the beginning of each month, people are hungry -- those are usually the busiest days, Berenz said.

"Some people are so thankful," he said. "You can see there are some people that are just down and out -- they need that food right now. They thank the receptionist, they thank the person bringing the fresh food up, they thank the person up front when they leave..."

Donations of food and money made in March are vital to the Food Pantry, but it also welcomes donations of garden produce in the autumn and of processed venison during hunting season.

Only 204 pounds of venison were donated last year, down from 2,800 pounds the first year of the program.

"It was gone in two days," he said.

Berenz hopes more hunters donate next year, since venison is popular -- three of four shoppers at the food pantry are happy to get it when offered.