While the event schedule may be empty, the Milaca Food Shelf is working hard to provide families in need with some extra food.

The March campaign is the Minnesota FoodShare program’s annual grassroots push to restock food shelves around the state. Normally the Milaca Area Pantry is helped by churches hosting concerts and other events, but the pandemic means none of that is happening.

“We’re hoping that the community, the business owners in town continue to support us during this even though we’re not having any concerts or events or big fundraisers,” Director Debbie Girard said.

Because of the pandemic, the pantry has revamped its services. Previously the pantry welcomed customers inside to shop around. Nowadays the pantry uses contactless pickup, leaving pre-packed boxes of food outside for waiting customers to pickup.

While visitors have lost their choice in food during the pandemic, they are getting more bang for no buck these days. Between the pantry’s savings by shopping through Second Harvest, and the food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which only costs shipping but provides free food to the pantry, the pantry is giving out more for less, according to Girard.

“We’re actually giving them almost double the food they were getting beforehand, before the pandemic, and it’s costing us less money,” Girard said.

Girard makes sure that the food they give out includes extras to account for kids being at home more. That includes some additional snacks to make up for how much teenagers eat. Girard also makes sure to include easy to prepare or microwavable food for kids who may be home while their parents are at work, she said.

“I want our customers to have good, nutritional food,” Girard said. “I also want them to have food items that they can stretch further, because with kids being at home, you’re going through a lot more food now.”

For those in need who cannot make the normal Thursday hours of the pantry, it also has a blessing box, which contains bags of food available 24 hours a day. Most of that food is either microwavable or ready to eat. It may not be the healthiest, Girard said, but it keeps people from being hungry.

Each bag is designed to get one to three people through an emergency until the pantry itself is open. They cost the pantry less than $1 each, but provides enough food to keep someone fed for three days. Volunteers keep the box regularly stocked. In February the pantry gave out 188 bags — almost seven a day.

Homelessness in Milaca has increased as well, according to Girard. Most of the homeless visitors to the pantry are transient, using Highway 169 to get across the state to family or friends.

“They’re making decisions between gas money to get to their relative’s house and food,” Girard said.

People experiencing homelessness and emergency foster care situations can get special boxes from the pantry. Those boxes contain blankets, diapers, baby wipes, food and anything else that’s been donated. They are given out in conjunction with Lakes and Pines Community Action Council and the Pearl Crisis Center.

“When parents are leaving in the middle of the night with children, they may leave with nothing on their backs,” Girard said. “And babies need diapers, they need wipes, they need clothes.”

Girard encourages donors to give cash, because the purchasing power the pantry has is incredibly high.

“For 12 boxes of cereal, it’s gonna cost you $50,” Girard said. “If you give the pantry the $50 instead, I can buy 100 boxes of cereal with that same $50. Or I can buy a freezer full of meat for that $50.”

The largest expense at the pantry are the boxes, because they have to buy them new. The pantry currently spends about $145 a week to purchase them from Teal’s Market in Milaca.

The pantry averages 57 families a week. While the number of family units is not increasing, the size of each family has grown as people move in together, Girard said.

The pantry’s volunteer base was restricted for awhile during the pandemic. They weren’t able to welcome any seniors or volunteers under 18. That meant the same small group of volunteers continued to return each week.

“During that the businesses have been really good to feed our volunteers lunches on Thursday,” Girard said.

Luckily over the last six months the National Honor Society has been able to send a few students to help volunteer in the pantry.

The pantry is open the first four Thursdays each week from noon to 4 p.m. Potential volunteers can contact the pantry at 320-982-3773 or visit https://tinyurl.com/wm26z4ra.

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