The Hubbard County Board agreed Tuesday to contribute $5,000 toward the purchase of a walk-in refrigerator for the Hubbard County Food Shelf (HCFS).
According to a written request presented by executive director Bob Hansen, usage of the food shelf has slowed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, while the amount of food being delivered has increased, “stretching our storage capacity to its limits.”
“During the COVID, the government has been supplying us with a lot of government surplus food, a lot of perishable meat and whatnot,” assistant food shelf director Denny Ulmer explained in an interview. “Our freezers are full; our refrigerators are full.”
In response, the HCFS ordered a large, commercial-grade refrigeration unit to increase the food shelf’s storage capacity.
Ulmer said the 13-by-18 foot unit is being custom built for the facility and will be placed against the east-side, exterior wall of the facility. He expects delivery in six weeks.
“It is our goal to have the unit installed and in service as soon as possible,” Hansen wrote to the county board.
“That will greatly increase our storage capacity, so we can continue to serve our clients well and meet their food security needs,” said Ulmer, who estimated the total cost of the project at about $32,000, including site preparation and installation. He said about $28,000 of this amount has been raised to-date in grants and donations.
“We’ve received a permit from the city for having it back there,” he said. “It meets the setback in the alley with the city code. And then, we’ll cut a door in the wall here, inside our warehouse, so the volunteers don’t have to go outside to access the unit in the winter.”
Acknowledging that it’s a big project for a local organization, Ulmer said, “The good news is, we just have so much food product coming our way. Much of it is COVID and CARES Act distribution. But we’re running out of places to store it. So, we appreciate any support from the community. They’ve been awfully good to us.”
County board debate
County commissioners expressed concern that the food shelf’s purchase might not qualify for CARES Act funding, as it could be seen as a capital improvement.
“If in an audit, whatever we give, and it doesn’t qualify, it then has to be paid back out of county dollars,” said board chair Char Christenson.
“The struggle I have with this is obviously people perceived there was going to be a greater need for more food because of COVID, and the reality is the demand has actually dropped off,” said county commissioner David De La Hunt.
Rather than building more storage, he said, “Isn’t the better solution just to not accept more food, if you don’t need it?”
County Coordinator Eric Nerness said the reduced demand for food shelf service may be connected to the $600 per week stimulus checks, which lasted temporarily. “With the election results uncertain and legislation uncertain, we don’t know if that (stimulus) will come around again,” he continued.
Nerness questioned whether the county would be hurt if they ultimately had to pay the $5,000.
“Probably not,” replied county commissioner Dan Stacey.
“We’d probably be able to absorb that,” agreed Nerness.
Citing an increased demand of over 30 percent due to COVID-19, the Akeley-Nevis Community Food Shelf made a similar request.
In a letter to the board, secretary-treasurer Bernice Beck wrote, “In order to address this need, we have had to purchase an additional freezer,” which had not been budgeted. The Akeley-Nevis food shelf requested $1,175 for the total cost of the freezer.
De La Hunt noted that the Hubbard County Food Shelf’s commercial-grade, walk-in freezer will have recurring costs, while Akeley-Nevis simply purchased a free-standing appliance.
The county board approved Akeley-Nevis Community Food Shelf’s funding request.
A high-risk population
Marcel Noyes, who is heavily engaged with Ruby’s Pantry, said he has a lot of contact with area food shelves.
“A lot of the folks that come to the food shelf are high-risk folks to start with. For them to come to a location and pick up food, they feel they’re taking a risk. And volunteers are taking a risk. So they held back for a period of time, probably in July and August,” Noyes pointed out.
He reiterated that, now that the stimulus payments are gone, “there’s a higher demand in the community for assistance.”
Stacey agreed, saying food is available, but the problem is getting to the clients who need it “because of the concerns about COVID.”
Laporte Ruby’s Pantry
Laporte Ruby’s Pantry is a nonprofit organization that distributes corporate surplus grocery items on a monthly basis.
“While there are no residency or income requirements for participation, it is always our hope and goal to help food-insecure individuals and families from our community and the surrounding area
Noyes said Laporte Ruby’s Pantry had to cancel three months’ of food distribution due to COVID-19.
“The demand was there. Matter of fact, we got a lot of calls from community folks. They come from not only Laporte, but Park Rapids, Nevis and Lake George, and even Bemidji and Cass Lake,” he said. “We deliver 304 packages every month, and that demand is very constant.”
Ruby’s Pantry organizers were uncomfortable with exposing volunteers to the virus.
“Many people do not feel safe working with the group to unload the truck, arrange the products, prepare the shares and load them into vehicles,” Schnabel wrote. “The needs of the community, however, are increasing as out-of-work individuals run out of money to pay for their necessities.”
Laporte Ruby’s Pantry asked for $1,513 in funding, noting that $1,340 in gift certificates to the local grocery store and gas station were given to families impacted by the pandemic. They also purchased face masks for volunteers and made a monetary donation to the local food shelf, which “saw unprecedented traffic to the point that demands for their services exceeded their ability to supply aid,” Schnabel wrote.
The board approved the full request.