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Becker County Food Pantry hopes to double its space with a new building

The Food Pantry is hoping to get $250,000 (in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds) from the city of Detroit Lakes and another $250,000 or so in ARPA money from Becker County to go towards a $750,000 building, which might be built on a lot near the Richwood Road industrial park.

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Becker County Food Pantry Director Brad Carlson, left, and Board President Dale Storey inside the Food Pantry, which can be cramped and difficult for volunteers. The freezer-refrigerator unit is to the left. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

The Becker County Food Pantry is looking to expand and build a larger facility in a new location.

The goal is to increase storage space – including refrigeration and freezer space – and improve services, said Dale Storey, president of the nine-member board of directors.

The hope is to make it more customer-friendly and easier for sometimes-older volunteers, who now have to climb ladders to store and retrieve boxes of groceries.

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At the Becker County Board meeting Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021 (from left) are VFW member Kohl Skalin, Food Pantry Board President Dale Storey, Food Pantry Board Vice President Steve Schumacher, and Becker County Economic Development Director Guy Fischer. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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Since 1999, the Food Pantry has been located in a former city public waterworks building next to Minnesota Flyers gymnastics building in the Becker County Fairgrounds in Detroit Lakes.

The Food Pantry is hoping to get $250,000 (in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds) from the city of Detroit Lakes and another $250,000 or so in ARPA money from Becker County to go towards a $750,000 building. The project qualifies for ARPA funding, Storey said.

The city has suggested building the new food pantry on a lot near its Richwood Road industrial park, and a privately-owned lot is also under consideration by the Food Pantry Board, said Food Pantry Director Brad Carlson.

More space is much-needed

As designed, the new building would be about twice the size of the existing Food Pantry, and would have more than double its freezer and refrigerator space, Carlson. The new freezer and refrigeration units could be paid for through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he added, and the existing units would be moved to the new building.

Other grant applications are also in the works, and the Food Pantry has also built up a healthy reserve, part of which could be tapped to help pay for the project if necessary.

The two spoke at a County Board meeting Tuesday and also in a newspaper interview Thursday.

“There were times we had to turn food down due to the lack of freezer and storage space,” Carlson said. The Food Pantry served over 300 families last month, more than 1,000 people, he added, and the need is expected to grow as the government winds down its injections of COVID stimulus money into the economy.

The Food Pantry could actually use more storage space immediately, Carlson said. “Right now we’re being overwhelmed with the quantity of stuff coming in that the government is still purchasing – we have 93 cases of cheese we need to store.”

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Bigger building, better service

If it comes together as designed, the new building would be about twice the size of the existing Food Pantry, and would be roughly split between a storage area and a shopping area, with bathrooms, a utility room, an office and a small conference room and break room in the middle.

The Food Pantry would like to explore the option of letting customers pick their own groceries, with an eye towards cutting down on food waste. There isn’t room for that now, but if customers in the new building can pick out their own food, it would be more likely to get eaten, and the Food Pantry could adjust what it acquires and stocks accordingly.

Now, the food boxes are prepacked by volunteers, and all customers get pretty much the same thing, with larger families getting more.

The downside to letting customers “shop” for what they want is that it can slow the process way down, and the pantry needs to serve a lot of people in a relatively short amount of time.

Helping in other ways

Because food is the most basic of needs, the Food Pantry is an ideal place to find people who may have other serious needs, such as energy assistance or dental problems.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamp) educator sometimes stops by to talk with Food Pantry customers about SNAP food benefits. But there’s generally no room inside, so they have to talk outside – a problem in the cold weather months.

“They can only do it when it’s warm enough,” Carlson said. “We’d like to make it a little more convenient for them to come in.”

Still, some things have to be done in the winter months. The Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership is providing information about its energy assistance program at the Food Pantry right now.

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Storey says the new building would give agency representatives and customers a place to meet in private, if they want to, and a place to keep brochures and other referral information on hand.

The Food Pantry would also serve as a referral point for a new low-income dental clinic that may be built in the Detroit Lakes area, he added.

“We’re serving the customers they’re looking for,” he said. The Food Pantry serves individuals and families with incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level – which this year is $38,640 for a single person, $52,260 for a family of two, and $65,880 for a family of three.

County Board support

At the County Board meeting Tuesday, commissioners didn’t commit to a specific amount to go towards the new Food pantry, but several expressed support for the project.

“I certainly would support something like that,” said Becker County Board Chair Barry Nelson. “I’m not sure of the amount, but I certainly believe this is an expense that will be part of that mix (of projects funded through county ARP funds) – whether it’s the full $250,000 or or a significant portion of that.”

Due to the need throughout the county, and the cramped Food Pantry space now available, Commissioner John Okeson said he supports a new building. Commissioners Ben Grimsley and Richard Vareberg said they also support the project.

“The new building is going to be good for everybody,” Storey said.

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