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Bemidji Community Food Shelf: Garden will help others

Members of Boy Scout Troop 25 planted potatoes Saturday on Gary Vanyo's farm near Bemidji to benefit the Bemidji Community Food Shelf. Working above are Mark Lacey, left, and Jay Burba-Venne, right, with Ken Lacey, their Scout master, in the background. Vanyo designated six acres of land to be planted for the food shelf. Groups and individuals are being sought to volunteer for the project. Pioneer Photo/Laurie Swenson

A bounty of fresh produce will be coming up for the Bemidji Community Food Shelf this summer, thanks to land designated as a garden for the food shelf.

"I had heard they were having to buy potatoes to give away," said Gary Vanyo, who set aside six acres of land near his rural Bemidji home. The food shelf is seeking volunteers to help work the land.

"People are starting to have to spend their money on other things, like increased gas prices, heating bills, medical bills," Vanyo said. "This has all transpired in the last two years, and it's also caused a greater awareness for people to start doing things like gardening."

"This is so great," said Marge Danielson, who is coordinating volunteerism for the food shelf garden. "Potatoes are so expensive. We like to give fresh potatoes to our clients instead of just the dry."

The first volunteers came from Boy Scout Troop 25, which is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church. The Scouts spent a chilly Saturday morning planting potatoes, onions, carrots and rhubarb.

"It is very worthwhile for the Boy Scouts to be involved with this project," Danielson said.

Community service is an integral part of Boy Scouts, said Colleen Mayer, troop committee member.

"It's something they've got to do for rank advancement," said Ken Lacey, troop leader.

"I think this is actually kind of fun," said troop member Mark Lacey. "It's kind of relaxing."

Those interested in being placed on an on-call list to help with the garden can contact Danielson at 759-9514 or

"We're looking for groups or individuals," said food shelf coordinator Carolyn Hegland.

"As much or as little as they like," Danielson added.

Danielson's husband, Gary, is a former president of the food shelf.

"We just developed a real interest in it," she said. "They needed someone to help coordinate the volunteering. I also get to do a little gardening."

Her husband stepped down from the food shelf board last year. "He is doing some other things, so I felt it was my turn," Danielson said.

People in crisis

The economic downturn is showing up at the food shelf, where current clients are coming more often and new clients are showing up.

"We've never had so many people," said June Roxtrom, an interviewer at the food shelf. "If we weren't here, I don't know what they'd do."

On a recent day, 50 families were served, and half were newcomers, Hegland said.

"We're seeing them sooner then we'd usually see them, plus we're seeing people who just have never had to use the food shelf," she said. "So far we're keeping up. We're doing better than expected because March Food Share was tremendous in Bemidji."

Hegland attributed part of that to the tight economy, too, as people realize how little it takes to be in need.

"People are worried, and they're worried about their neighbors," she said. "That's the way Bemidji is. I've never had Bemidji fail me. When I need food, I just put out a plea and it comes."

Currently, the food shelf on a daily basis puts out produce, breads and other perishables that have been donated by local businesses and individuals.

While clients may receive a maximum of four boxes of food per year, they are welcome to stop at the food shelf anytime to pick up the perishables, which must be moved quickly.

"The shelves are full in the mornings," Hegland said. "I get 15,000 pounds of gleanings every month."

But, with the garden on the Vanyo farm, the food shelf will soon be able to regularly pack fresh produce in the boxes of food for clients.

A different world

Vanyo, who used to run a McDonald's in Bemidji, has enjoyed country life with his wife, Cindy, since 2000, when they built a house on the 40 acres of land they purchased in 1992.

"I knew that when I got out here that it would be a totally different world, and it is," he said. "Out here, the only thing you hear is the eagles flying over and the birds singing. And nobody demands your attention."

Vanyo planted 4,500 Norway pines in one day in 1994.

"Out here, I'm kind of a conservationist," he said. "I don't kill my chickens and eat them or sell them. I don't cut down my wood and sell it. I keep my trees alive; I plant trees. I keep the trees here so that the deer have a place to hide and they have a place to live and the birds have a place to live."

Vanyo is pleased to have the opportunity to instill the joy of gardening in people.

"We're losing a whole generation of people who know how to grow things," he said. "If we don't teach them, they're not going to know."

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