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Chili Challenge defies hunger

Hubbard County Food Shelf Director Bob Hansen demonstrates the use of a rolling platform ladder the organization recently obtained through a donation from the Park Rapids Rotary Club. The platform replaces a folding step ladder that made stocking the warehouse’s upper shelves potentially dangerous. The wheels can be locked or unlocked with the push of a pedal, and a bicycle horn was added just for fun. (Photos by Robin Fish/Enterprise)1 / 2
Volunteers Diane, left, and Lyle Hildebrandt show how they follow a menu checklist to fill baskets for different sizes of families at the Hubbard County Food Shelf. (Photos by Robin Fish/Enterprise)2 / 2

The Park Rapids Enterprise's ninth annual Chili Challenge could raise even more money for the Hubbard County Food Pantry than the total of all the $1 votes for best chili recipe.

Entrants in the chili contest help raise funds for the food shelf from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 7 at the Park Rapids American Legion. The recipe whose donation jar collects the most dollars wins a framed "People's Choice" Award. All proceeds go toward the food shelf.

Thanks to Minnesota Food Share's annual March Campaign, those chili dollars will pull even more funding into the food shelf's coffers.

"It's not a match," food shelf director Bob Hansen clarified. "I think of a match as, I give you $1, you're going to give me $2 back."

During March, food shelves throughout the state report all the funds they raise and keep a journal of any food they receive by weight. At the end of the month, they submit these totals to the campaign, and Minnesota Food Share provides supplemental funding.

Hansen explained, "Minnesota Food Share has XYZ dollars, and I don't know what that dollar amount is that they're going to give away. All the food shelves report throughout the state, and they'll add up."

The amount awarded is weighted according to the percentage of the total donations raised by each food shelf, he said.

If the math sounds messy, the outcome is neat: In effect, donors at the Enterprise's Chili Challenge can give "more than 100 percent" to the local food pantry.

"The chili cook-off has been a tremendous benefit for us," said Hansen. "It generates a lot of awareness throughout the community for our need for funding. That awareness, and the exposure that we get, is significant."

Also significant, he added, is the funding the event raises to provide emergency nutrition services for households struggling to make ends meet.

"Our funding comes 100 percent from donations," said Hansen. "We get no government subsidies."

In addition to cash donations from individuals and organizations, food donations from local stores, and volunteer hours, Hansen said the best thing the food shelf has going for it is the North Country Food Bank in Crookston, from which the Park Rapids-based pantry buys food monthly at a discount.

"If you give me a $1 bill or a $5 bill, I can buy more with it than you can if you go to the grocery store," he said.

As a result, he said the pantry can stretch monetary donations much farther and provide more food to its clients than it can get from food donations.

Nevertheless, Hansen also noted there are items the pantry cannot get from its Crookston supplier. Some food staples in high demand, but sometimes hard to get through the North Country Food Bank, include soup, boxed instant pudding, rice, jelly, and canned pork and beans.

Also seldom available except through private donations are fresh fruits and vegetables as well as coffee, tea, baby food, laundry supplies, paper products and hygiene items.

"Those kinds of things we don't order at all," said Hansen. "We don't get a lot of it in, and I'm sure the clients really appreciate it when they do get it."

A "most wanted" poster provided by the University of Minnesota's County Extension office lists cash along with canned fish, meat and chicken, apple juice, salad dressing and whole-grain cereal as some of the top needs of a typical food pantry.

The need, Hansen pointed out, is growing.

According to a report provided Feb. 13 to the food shelf board of directors, the Hubbard County Food Shelf received a total of 1,324 visits between November 2017 and January. With each household eligible to receive a food basket once a month, the pantry served a total of 4,498 family members and distributed 179,510 pounds of food during these visits.

Compared to the same three-month period a year ago, this represented a nearly 18 percent increase in the number of households served and a more than 17 percent increase in family members; but the amount of food distributed only went up approximately eight percent.

In summary, the amount of food flowing through the county's food shelf increased significantly during the past year, but it didn't increase as fast as the need.

"We couldn't keep up with that kind of increase," said Hansen.

Taking 2017 as a whole, the county's food shelf distributed 618,252 pounds of food during 4,390 client visits, representing 1,025 families and a total of 14,866 individuals.

"We have some disadvantaged," Hansen said about the clients the food shelf serves. "We have a number of under-employed families. You name it. Our family sizes range all the way from a family of one, which may be a senior or a single individual, to our largest family last year," a family of 17. "Some of them came back multiple times."

The reason such a family might need occasional help is not difficult to imagine. Equally clear is the reason the growth in supply is falling behind the growing demand.

"Our clientele has increased, and funding is going to be critical," said Hansen. "Because we're 100 percent dependent on funding, if the funds don't come in, we have to look at what we are giving out. Do we reduce something? Do we eliminate something?"

A few clients offered anonymous comments about what the food shelf means to them.

"It gives us extra food," a wife said matter-of-factly.

"So we don't run short before the next payday," her husband added. "It's an excellent source when you're short of income."

"It's important," she said. "We end up coming here in between paydays to make it last. If you need it, use it."

A young woman said, "I'm the only income in my household, so it helps me feed my kids."

"The people have been very good to us," said Hansen. "We make them aware of our need, and they've been just tremendous in responding to it, whether that be with volunteers or with cash or with food donations. We really appreciate all the support that we get from the community, and also from our seasonal residents."

For more information, to volunteer or to arrange for Hansen to speak to a group about the food shelf, call 732-1282. Donations may be mailed or hand-delivered to the Hubbard County Food Pantry, 308 Pleasant Ave., Park Rapids, MN 56470.