By MAGGIE SCHUETTE-VOSS
It's going to be a tough summer at the McLeod County Food Shelf.
March is the major food drive month and donations were down - 4,000 pounds less food than last year and $3,000 less cash donations - and food shelf use is consistently increasing.
In 1996 1,385 families were served; 1,643 in 1997. When the food shelf started in 1983, 109 families used it.
Food shelf manager Marietta Neumann does not expect many donations over the summer. This is the time the migrant workers come to work at Seneca Foods, who package the Green Giant brand in Glencoe, and she said the donations take a nosedive.
"People don't donate because they think it's just the migrants that use the shelf, but that's not true," she said.
Last year, less than one-third of the families that used the food shelf, 529, were migrant families.
The various owners of Green Giant have contributed food products and money to the food shelf since 1988. Seneca Foods Corporation, current owner of the Green Giant brand, in 1997 contributed over $5,000 and 1,200 pounds of product.
Most migrant workers, Neumann said, are primarily one-time users. They obtain food from the food shelf to help them get settled when they arrive to work at Seneca, as carrying food when traveling from job to job may not be practical.
"There are some that come for the free handout, but there are non-migrants who do too," Neumann said.
Seneca encourages the migrant workers to volunteer at the food shelf, and Neumann said several do each year, acting as interpreters and helping in other ways.
The perception that migrant workers abuse the food shelf, therefore cutting down donations, hurts two-thirds of people who need the food shelf, primarily the working poor.
"These are the people that are just getting by, then something happens. The car breaks down, they have medical bills and they can't afford to buy food," she said.
Others are seniors on fixed incomes, and working poor with children home for the summer months.
"During the school year, the kids eat at school. When they're home during the summer, by July the food budget is stretched to the hilt. Then it's time to buy school clothes and there is even less money," Neumann said.
"I had one woman come in in tears. She wanted her kids to be in activities in school. She didn't want them just hanging around, but it was either school activity fees or food," she said.
The need for the food shelf persists though January and February, when high fuel bills need to be paid.
Besides the working poor, others the food shelf assists vary as much as individuals are different.
Senior citizens on a fixed income need the food shelf as do those in a crisis situation, such as a family left homeless by fire. Neumann recalled one woman who, with her children, was leaving an abusive relationship.
"When she got the food she cried because she didn't know how she was going to pay it back. Well, she doesn't have to and with all the things she had to worry about how she was going to feed her kids was not one of them," she said.
The donations Neumann said she needs are effectively anything, with this guideline: "If you are really hungry and in need of help, what would you need to stretch a meal?"
"I don't need anchovies or artichoke hearts or green cherries, I need the basics," she said.
The food, Neumann stressed, must be unopened and cans must be in good shape.
"I've gotten half full boxes of cereal, cans that are rusted. If it's not something that you wouldn't eat, please don't think we will give it to people that come to the food shelf," she said.
Besides food staples, such as flour, mixes and canned goods, Neumann said the food shelf also needs personal care and cleaning items.
Fresh produce that will keep for a few days, such as squash, carrots, beans, and cabbage are also welcome.