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When times are tough, families need pantry

It's been a busy August and September, said new Pierce County Food Pantry coordinator Trygve Aarsheim.

This month's count is not complete, but the number of families using the pantry in August was 50 percent higher than in May. Given the economic times, volunteers expect the higher need will continue through the winter.

The number of households that turned to the food pantry for emergency help increased from 128 in April to 172 in August. The number of people served climbed from 285 to 463 in three months.

"The kids were home from school so that's an issue," said Aarsheim, himself a retired educator, attempting to explain the higher use of the service.

The pantry, in the lower level of the Ellsworth Village Hall, is open 9:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday and 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays. The service is available to all Pierce County residents, but families may use it only once a month.

"We always tell them that this is only supplemental," said Aarsheim. "We do the best we can to help them get over the rough spots."

Food is distributed by weight. An individual may take 40 lbs. a month and another 10 lbs. for each extra family member. For example, a family of three would be given 60 lbs. of food.

In the last five months, the pantry has distributed over 7,700 lbs. of food per month.

Aarsheim, who has been pantry coordinator since May 1, took over from Fred Finstad, who had filled the position for many years.

Aarsheim and his wife Vicki have served on the county Hunger Prevention Council for a couple of years. While his wife still works, Aarsheim, who worked 25 years as a teacher and librarian in River Falls, retired last year.

His wife is secretary for the Hunger Prevention Council. Their experience with the board convinced him to accept the volunteer position of coordinator.

"I've seen what a small group of people can do," said Aarsheim. Food pantry volunteers number only about 12, but they've organized efficiently to take on a large task, he said.

Aarsheim's job is to order the food, pass on information to volunteers, file official reports and apply for grants. He also helps unload and stock and pitches in with other tasks when needed.

"I try to stop in as often as possible," he said.

The food pantry is run by the Hunger Prevention Council, an independent non-profit that also arranges periodic food distributions around the county, mobile distributions to underserved areas and a Christmas program called Gift Box.

The pantry's main source for food is Second Harvest Heartland in the Twin Cities. Second Harvest charges for the food and household supplies, but the prices are low, said Aarsheim.

Donated cash goes a long way at Second Harvest, he said.

Aarsheim quickly added, "But, of course, it's always wonderful to get food too."

The pantry also gets supplies from the St. Croix Valley United Way's Food Resource Center in Hudson.

With the help of the other volunteers, Aarsheim is quickly learning which foods clients want and which make healthy meals.

"Things that go fast are the things that are needed," he said.

Local donors bring in lots of things either on their own or through organized collections and Share the Bounty, a program sponsored by master gardeners, brings in fresh produce this time of year.

Aarsheim told of one gentleman who stops in a couple of times a week to see what's needed and then goes out to buy it. The man lives in Minnesota but is a former area resident.

"He just drops things off because he thinks we need them," said Aarsheim. "He's just such a wonderful human being - this is just one of his causes."

Aarsheim guesses the man donates thousands of pounds of food a year.

"More people like that are coming out of the woodwork as the need grows," said Vicki.

The need is growing, and the Aarsheims don't expect a lessening soon.

"Times are not improving," said Vicki. Higher heating bills will mean families have less money for food, she said.

For information about helping, call Aarsheim at 273-0223.