BEMIDJI -- Everyone needs to eat.

That’s why organizations around the Bemidji area have rallied together to ensure everyone in the community is fed, and those at risk are able to stay safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many members in the greater Bemidji community rely on organizations like the Bemidji Community Food Shelf to get through the month. And according to Mary Mitchell, executive director at the food shelf, having access to food is more important than ever, as so many are without work right now.

But with more restrictions and safety precautions being put in place on an almost daily basis, it became imperative that older volunteers who usually help keep the food shelf running needed to stick closer to home. This posed some major problems.

“As things began to escalate, Mary started evaluating her staff and their risks and even her own age and risks, and she began thinking that they may even have to close,” said Denae Alamano, executive director of the United Way of Bemidji Area.

So, the two organizations came together and formed a better solution -- swapping out the older volunteers for younger people from around the community.

Even some of the staff has been switched out, so that older staff members can stay safe at home. Shannon Lee, director of marketing and events at the United Way, began working at the food shelf on Monday filling in for Debbie Johnson, the volunteer coordinator at the food shelf.

“Shannon is still doing her regular job duties for the United Way,” Alamano explained. “But she’s also training in volunteers from here and helping out in whatever way she can.”

Lee said she hasn’t minded combining her two jobs for the time being. “It’s been really nice to be able to help the food shelf in this tough time and fill that gap with resources at the United Way. It’s kind of like a no-brainer,” she said. “If I can train in volunteers and work remotely here to be able to keep food shelf staff safe and healthy, then I’m all in.”

As an added precaution, the food shelf is now strictly offering parking lot distribution on Mondays and Wednesdays. This means that anyone in need can drive through the parking lot, and volunteers will bring pre-packaged boxes of food out to each person’s vehicle.

Boys and Girls Club volunteers McKenna Rohe and Morgan Morgenstern load a box of food into a vehicle on Wednesday morning at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Boys and Girls Club volunteers McKenna Rohe and Morgan Morgenstern load a box of food into a vehicle on Wednesday morning at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Families with a household size of four and less can receive one box of food, and those with five or more can receive two boxes.

Alamano explained that the volunteers are made up of groups from Sanford Health, the Boys and Girls Club, First National Bank, Bemidji Area Schools and more.

On distribution days, volunteers are helping stock items in the warehouse and bringing boxes out to people’s vehicles and on Tuesdays and Fridays they are boxing up food to be distributed.

Mitchell explained that even though they are happy people will still receive food, she is disappointed they are not able to choose items for themselves. Since the food shelf recently transitioned to a Super Shelf, this gave their customers more of a variety of choices when shopping each month.

“So to go back to this pre-packaged box thing was just a bummer, but it’s better than nothing and it’s still food,” Mitchell said.

She added that no one is complaining about it though. “People have just been happy to get food right now,” Mitchell said. “I have had several people tell me that when I’ve apologized for how things are now. They just say, ‘Oh we’re just happy you're here and you’re open.’”

The amount of food people are receiving now is still relatively the same as it would be if they were coming in and shopping for themselves. “We measured it out and it is about 15 pounds of food in each box, which still ends up being around the usual 10 meals worth of food,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell mentioned that for those who may not have their own vehicles or transportation, the Bemidji Bus Line can bring people to pick up boxes of food as well.

Keeping everyone safe

There are still many safety precautions being put in place to keep each group of volunteers safe, such as working in small groups, cleaning things regularly and washing their hands as often as possible.

“We have a plan in place that if someone gets sick or someone in their household gets sick, the whole group will be swapped out for a different one,” Mary Mitchell said.

Alamano explained there has been no shortage of volunteers so far. “There have been so many people calling the United Way either with a resource, a need or a want to volunteer,” Alamano said. “And so we have a good list of people and volunteers ready to step up and help when it’s needed, knowing that food access is a huge deal and we need the food shelf to stay open.”

So, for now, it is looking like the food shelf will be able to be open and available to the community as long as the volunteers keep things up.

“We are so grateful,” Michell said. “Because we really wanted to fill that need and be able to step up during this time. Knowing that we might not be able to was really heart-wrenching, so we are just so glad.”

Partnering with the community

The United Way is entirely supported by community donations and volunteers, and Alamano said they are doing as much as they can to give back to the community in whatever ways they are able.

“We don’t get any state or federal funding of any kind, we are totally based on what the community gives,” Alamano said. “So I just think everyone should be proud that we are able to step in like this and help, because it’s only possible with their support.”

Alamano explained that things haven’t always operated this way. “We’ve always been this funding agency, but three years ago my board and I went through a strategic planning process to discuss what it means to be a partner agency,” Alamano said. “Because that is what we call them, but if we are just giving them funds, how are we partnering?”

She explained that their team decided to partner with agencies in order to fill in gaps and meet needs in the community.

“So when this all came up last Monday, and calling those essential places like the soup kitchen, the food bank and food shelf, we found a lot of different things we could step in and do,” Alamano said.

Some of the other things they have worked on include a hygiene drive with Lueken’s Village Foods North and South and helping to come up with activities for children in area shelters.

“A few of the shelters we partner with were looking for children’s activities and so we partnered with Compass Rose to put craft kits together, and Ashley Stevens from Thrivent Financial stepped up to pay for that,” Alamano said.

The crafting kit bundles each include the supplies to make six different crafts. Anyone who wishes to support the project can purchase a kit for donation or for themselves and a portion of the dollars will go toward the craft kit project.

“There are so many different things going on, but personally I am most proud of this right now,” Alamano said. “Keeping the food shelf open has made me really proud of the United Way and what we can accomplish together.”

She emphasized that none of it would be possible without the community support they have received.

“We owe a big thank you to the community, because without their support of the United Way we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Alamano said. “This is a critical time to be stepping up and taking action for Bemidji and our whole community.”

Anyone who would like more information on the United Way can visit their website at www.unitedwaybemidji.org, call (218) 444-8929 or find them on Facebook.

For more information on the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, visit https://bcfsmn.org or call (218) 444-6580.

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