McLeod food shelf is nearly bare: the worst it has been in 19 years

October 29, 2007

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

In her Glencoe office, among furniture compiled from courthouse rejects, Marietta Neumann sits and wonders how she is going to feed the children of McLeod County.

A few steps away is the warehouse of the McLeod Emergency Food Shelf.

This is the last stop for county residents who have run out of other answers to the question, “Where is my next meal going to come from?”

In the aisles where people come to pick up their allotment of food, more and more bins are empty.

At the back of the room, shelves that are normally filled with food to replenish the bins stand empty.

“This is the worst I have seen it in 19 years,” Neumann said.

A lifelong county resident, Neumann lives in Sherman Station, just west of Winsted, in the house she was born in.

Behind her bright eyes and mischievous smile is a gritty determination to continue her mission.

She began volunteering at the food shelf when it opened in 1983.

When she took over as coordinator in 1989, the food shelf was within six months of having to shut down, according to the accountant.

“I vowed never to let it go under,” Neumann said.

Today, the needs of the shelter are greater than ever.

The food shelf has offices in Glencoe and Hutchinson. From 2005 to 2006, the number of individuals served county-wide grew by 14 percent, from 5,337 to 6,093.

The number of unduplicated households grew by nearly 22 percent, from 1,235 to 1,502.

Neumann is a tireless advocate for the food shelf.

“My husband calls me a professional beggar,” she said, with a sense of pride. In addition to soliciting donations, she speaks to school and community groups around the county, talking about the food shelf and dispelling myths about the people who use it.

Who uses the food shelf?

The food shelf serves people from every city in the county. They represent every age group, ethnic background, and economic class.

Neumann recalled a class that she spoke to at one of the schools. She asked the students, “Who uses the food shelf?”

One young girl spoke up and said, “My mommy had to use the food self, and boy, were we glad to get that food.”

Neumann said people sometimes are reluctant to support the food shelf, and say there is no one from their town who is going hungry.

The majority of users are from Glencoe and Hutchinson, but all cities are represented. In 2006, 65 Lester Prairie households and 115 Winsted households were served at the food shelf.

Neumann said many people would be surprised to learn who uses the facility.

“I have had people tell me that no one in their town uses the service, and I know that we served their own family members,” Neumann said.

The names of people who use the service are protected by data privacy, but Neumann speaks in general terms to illustrate the lack of awareness.

Once, a man was in the office dropping off a donation, and talked about how it was “other people” that use the service.

“If he had been here an hour earlier, he would have seen his own son being served,” Neumann said.

“That young man would never admit to his father that he had to come to the food shelf,” she added.

People who use the food shelf don’t advertise the fact. There is pride, and embarrassment, and they often don’t want their neighbors or families to know that they are struggling.

“It is not people on welfare, or migrants, or people who are too lazy to get a job. It is your friends and neighbors, and even your family,” Neumann said.

Many people only use the food shelf once, just to get them through a difficult time. Only a very small percentage have to come back more than a few times.

There were 626 first-time users in 2005. This number increased by 31 percent, to 822, in 2006.

Neumann said, many times, it is a change in circumstances, such as a reduction in work hours, job loss, divorce, illness or hospitalization, or even unexpected car repairs, that brings people to the food shelf.

She said she once read a study that said 90 percent of people in this country, no matter what their income level, are two paychecks away from the food shelf.

“We see a lot of tears, and a lot of hugs,” Neumann said. She added that one of the most difficult things for her is to see a grown man cry because he is unable to put food on the table for his family.

“You just don’t know what it is like until you walk a mile in their shoes,” Neumann said.

Children are especially important to Neumann.

She said without the food shelf, many children would have to go to school without breakfast.

“We have to take care of the children,” Neumann said.

Despite the increase in demand, Neumann said donations have decreased.

She said this is due, in part, to the tough economic times, and to the fact that many people don’t realize how great the volume of usage is at the food shelf.

“A group will have a food drive, and might collect 500 pounds of food. That sounds like a lot, but they don’t realize it will be gone in three days or a week,” Neumann commented.

She said the food shelf distributes more than 90 tons of food each year.

She stretches cash donations as far as possible by purchasing food from a variety of sources to compliment food that is donated.

Some comes from the Second Harvest food bank, some from government commodities, and some from local grocery stores.

In recent years, the food shelf received an annual contribution of $2,000 from the McLeod County social services budget, but this was eliminated from the 2008 budget.

Neumann said the food shelf does have some savings, but these are reserved funds and she cannot touch them.

Most of the money for the food shelf comes from donations, which totalled $82,676 in 2006.

What items are needed?

The food shelf is always in need of basic food items.

“If you had to use the food shelf, what items would you like to have to eat?” Neumann asked.

Staples like sugar, flour, rice, and pasta are always in demand. Box dinners and canned stew or chili are also popular.

Even personal care items such as paper products, soap, and shampoo are available at the food shelf.

Neumann said sometimes, when there is a divorce or a woman has to leave the home, she is left without these items.

Donations tend to be seasonal, with the highest volume of donations coming during the March food drive and at Christmas.

Very few donations come in during the summer months, but this is actually a time of increased demand, because children are out of school and do not have access to the hot lunch program.

Both locations are open from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. Donations can be dropped off anytime during regular business hours. Food donations are tax deductible at a rate of $1 per pound. Monetary donations can be mailed to the McLeod Emergency Food Shelf, 808 East 12th Street, Glencoe, MN 55336. Drop boxes are also available at some area churches.

Food shelf users are asked to provide proof of address and fill out a simple intake form. Users are limited to one visit per 30-day period.

The stories of the people who use the food shelf touch Neumann, and she says it is impossible to know what it is like unless one spends a day at the food shelf working with the people.

“Many days, I go home and thank God I am not in their shoes,” Neumann said.

Times are tough, but Neumann and the volunteers, who logged nearly 3,600 hours last year, are determined to keep the food shelf afloat to serve those in need.