Friends of Friends fights hunger in Fergus Falls

FERGUS FALLS -- Leif and Kristen Hemstad walked into the Fergus Falls Food Shelf with two cardboard boxes of nonperishables. They walked out with the conviction that they needed to do more.

Piling inventory
Leif and Kristen Hemstad stand among some of the canned food items in the Fergus Falls (Minn.) Food Shelf. With them is Mary Phillipe, right, director of the Otter Tail County United Way. The second annual Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger fundraiser will help rural food shelves. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)

FERGUS FALLS -- Leif and Kristen Hemstad walked into the Fergus Falls Food Shelf with two cardboard boxes of nonperishables. They walked out with the conviction that they needed to do more.

In the car back home, there were tears and some strategizing. The couple decided to test a simple fundraising idea: Reach out to your friends. Ask them to do the same. Repeat.

As it turned out, the tactic can get a tad out of hand - and give a push for money and awareness terrific momentum.

Last year's Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger fundraiser in Otter Tail County, Minn., swelled beyond anything the Hemstads expected. And their team is poised to double the turnout and funds raised at today's second edition.

The event benefits seven food shelves that have dealt with just as steep an increase in demand as their counterparts in Fargo-Moorhead, but without much of the publicity and high-profile food drives.


"I don't know that there's been a hunger event of this magnitude and profile in this area," says Susie Novak, executive director of the Crookston, Minn., North Country Food Bank. "It's a fabulous example of community serving community."

It started in the summer of 2008, when the Hemstads, who both work at Microsoft in Fargo, threw a small party at their Ottertail Lake home. They asked their guests to bring a food item. Hence, the two boxes the couple delivered to the Fergus Falls shelf.

There, they saw picked-over shelves and families waiting to get supplies.

"People were not making eye contact with you; they were so embarrassed," Kristen recalls. "We were both just stunned."

In the car, Kristen cried; then, the couple set out to hatch a plan. They borrowed the idea from a Friends of Friends fundraiser Leif's sister had recently organized in Seattle for a women's shelter.

They figured they could get a few dozen people together and raise $7,500. But last winter's dinner and auction at Thumper Pond Resort in Ottertail brought out almost 200 guests and raised $23,000.

"It started with people chatting about what we were doing, and it spread," Leif says. "It was really mostly friends of friends. It just got viral."

Hunger activists in the area say the timing of the fundraiser and this year's follow-up is right.


"The need has increased tremendously in the rural areas," says Mary Phillipe, executive director of the United Way of Otter Tail County. "The majority of the increase comes from working families that just can't stretch that dollar any more."

The North Country Food Bank supplies food to pantries in 21 northwestern Minnesota counties, and, says Novak, 2009 marked a 40 percent jump in distribution. Rural food shelves, many of them open a few hours each week, have grappled with rising need outside the spotlight.

"The need is increasing everywhere," Novak says. "But the rural nature of our service makes it a little more difficult to get the word out."

Larry Loll, president of the Battle Lake (Minn.) Food Shelf's board, says the pantry saw an almost 30 percent increase in clients last year and expanded its Thursday working hours.

"Friends of Friends was a nice boost for us," he says.

Organizers have sold 230 tickets for tonight's event, which will feature a dinner, silent auction and live music at the Fergus Falls Bigwood Event Center. They're shooting for $50,000. The money will go to food shelves in March -Minnesota FoodShare Month - when foundations and companies match contributions in part.

Organizers will encourage attendees to volunteer so shelves can stay open longer. Greg Tehven, one of the organizer's of the student-led Fill the Dome food drive in Fargo, will give a pep talk.

"We started with raising money," Leif says. "Now we're raising awareness and creating a sense of community."


If you go

What: Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger fundraiser

When: 6 tonight

Where: Bigwood Event Center, 921 Western Ave., Fergus Falls, Minn.

Info: $50. (218) 736-5147.

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