More hungry people than ever are visiting the Becker County Food Pantry these days; in 2017, Food Pantry volunteers served 5,288 families by distributing 500,661 pounds of food.
"That works out to be about 19,200 people, of which 42 percent were children under the age of 17," says Brad Carlson, who became the Food Pantry's executive director last April.
That means this Thursday, March 1 will mark the start of Carlson's first Minnesota FoodShare campaign, a month-long effort to help feed the hungry in communities across the state.
The largest grassroots food and fund drive in the state, Minnesota FoodShare Month brings together various community organizations, businesses, and faith communities to help stock nearly 300 food shelves statewide — including the Becker County Food Pantry, which will once again be participating in 2018.
To date, Minnesota FoodShare has distributed over $17.2 million to participating food shelves, via its Food Fund.
"This Thursday, March 1, we join food shelves, faith communities, businesses, and organizations across Minnesota in acting to end hunger and food insecurity," Carlson said. "We ask county residents to please bring non-perishable items to our local food shelf, and/or contribute monetary donations, throughout the month."
Though food donations are always gratefully accepted, financial contributions are preferred, Carlson noted, since local food shelves can stretch every dollar donated into enough food for 2-3 meals.
"That's because we are able to purchase food in bulk, sometimes for as little as 14 cents a pound," he added.
Those bulk food purchases come from the North Country Food Bank in Crookston, Carlson noted. The March campaign provides an opportunity for donors to stretch their dollars (and food donations) even further, because Becker County's Food Pantry and other participating food shelf programs are eligible for matching grants from the Greater minnesota Council of Churches.
"The amount of the grant we receive is based on the total food and monetary donations we get during the month," Carlson said.
Hunger on the rise statewide
In 1982, Minnesota FoodShare began its work with a campaign advanced by congregations to restock food shelves in the 7-county Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. The March Campaign became a statewide program just one year later.
Statewide, one in ten Minnesotans currently experience food insecurity. Statistically, 1 in 7 children in Minnesota struggle with hunger. About 10 percent of all Minnesotans (12.7 percent of children) were living in poverty in 2016. Approximately 552,000 Minnesotans experience food insecurity, according to Minnesota FoodShare.
Over 3 million visits were made to Minnesota food shelves each year, 2011-16, and visits in 2017 did not slow down any.
Locally, the total number of 19,200 people served by the Food Pantry — which is the one and only food shelf located in Becker County, Carlson said — saw a 9 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. "We set three monthly usage records last year," he added. "January, August and October were our three highest months ever (in total usage), though the number of people who come in the week before Thanksgiving is also really, really high."
"Our numbers are cumulative," explained Food Pantry volunteer Alissa Mork. "We describe it this way as this is standard practice for required reporting to the state, USDA, and so forth. One individual may be counted up to 12 times in that number, if they visit the maximum allowed of once a month."
The demand on the local Food Pantry is unusually high, Carlson said, because it is the only such organization located within Becker County's borders. By contrast, Otter Tail County has six food shelves; Clay County, three; and Wadena County, four.
"Becker County has one, and that's us," he added.
Because the number of individuals and families using the Food Pantry continues to rise, the number of visits allowed is currently limited to just one per month, Carlson said.
"A family of four will get a 30-pound box of pre-packaged food (cans, boxes, etc.)," he continued. "A family of one or two will get a 15-pound box, while a family of six will get a 40-pound box."
Bigger families will get two or three boxes, depending on how many there are; the local pantry has sometimes served families as large as 12, Carlson said.
Each box is also supplemented by a predetermined amount of fresh produce, dairy, baked goods and fresh meat, depending on how much the pantry has on hand that week.
"We also have an 'odds and ends' section where clients can shop for things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry soap and other hygiene products," he added, as well as unique donated items like herbs and oils, coffee creamer and more.
"Right now, we even have some sauerkraut," Carlson said, noting that these odds and ends are distributed on a first-come, first serve basis.
"Macaroni and cheese, tuna, baked beans and soup continue to be our most popular items," he added.
"It all averages out to be about 26 pounds per person, per visit," Carlson said, which is up slightly from 2016, when distributions averaged 24 pounds per person — but still only a little more than half of what was distributed in 2003.
This is why every dollar, and every pound of food, collected during the month of March is so vital. The Becker County Food Pantry, located at 1310 Rossman Ave. in Detroit Lakes, is open every Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. Donations can be dropped off at that time, but they can also be made online, or by mail.
To donate online, go to www.GiveMN.org, "Find a Cause," then enter "Becker County Food Pantry." Amazon Smile also offers an option to donate to the Food Pantry, and donations can also be mailed to: Becker County Food Pantry, 1308 Rossman Ave., Detroit Lakes, MN 56501.
One new donation option this year, Carlson said, is through MinnKota Recycling.
The company is celebrating "Love Your Charity" this coming month, by offering extra donation opportunities just by recycling: Simply notify the attendant at MinnKota Recycling, located on Highway 59 North in Detroit Lakes, that you would like to donate your proceeds to the Becker County Food Pantry. The value of your recyclables will be donated to the Food Pantry (or other participating charities), along with additional funds being provided by MinnKota through March 31 — MinnKota's contribution will be an extra 5 cents per pound for aluminum or 2 cents per pound for No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles, magazines, newspapers, sorted paper and steel/tin cans.
"What a deal! You've cleaned the garage, donated to a charity and fed the hungry!" Carlson joked. All donations are tax-deductible. For more information, please call 218-846-0142.