Despite fewer volunteers, the Bemidji Community Food Shelf continued its work in 2020

In 2020, the Bemidji Community Food Shelf had to change its distribution model and work with less volunteers. It overcame obstacles, though, to deliver hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to the community.

Natalie Rader, who serves as treasurer on the Bemidji Community Food Shelf’s board, looks around in a greenhouse on the food shelf’s farm during the open house on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The need for nearly one million pounds of food in the Bemidji area remained in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, and the Bemidji Community Food Shelf didn't miss a beat.

Last year, the BCFS distributed 826,620 pounds of food to residents of the area. While that's down from the 925,000 provided in 2019, it was still a large amount given out to those in need.

Those efforts were celebrated Thursday, May 20, during the food shelf's annual meeting. For this year's event, a hybrid model was used with an open house at the food shelf and a video by Executive Director Mary Mitchell explaining the highlights of the past year.

As part of the open house, guests and members of the organization's board were given tours of the food shelf's building and its outside farm. The video, meanwhile, is available online and featured a salute to the organization's volunteers.


A board honoring volunteers sat next to a video playing the Bemidji Community Food Shelf’s annual meeting during their open house on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

The volunteers who gave their time and effort to the food shelf was integral in the past year, especially as new people were needed for the organization. Mitchell said not long after the pandemic hit in March 2020, the food shelf lost nearly 70% of its volunteers.

"We run on volunteers and we wouldn't be here without them," Mitchell said. "It was quite the big change for us. We had to find a way to continue serving during this important time and do so efficiently."

To adjust, Mitchell said Friday distribution had to be cut and boxes had to be prepackaged before going out to clients in their vehicles.

"We knew we wouldn't have the volunteer base to do it, but the United Way was a great help to us," Mitchell said. "They said 'we'll do anything to keep you open,' which was huge because at one point I was thinking 'we might have to close.'"

To refill the ranks, the United Way coordinated with some businesses that had furloughed staff. Those individuals were directed to help at the food shelf.

"It was fantastic and we devised a whole new system of distribution," Mitchell said.


In total, 12,584 households with 31,076 individuals were assisted by the food shelf. Additionally, BCFS partnered with Community Resource Connections of Bemidji to deliver more than 30,000 pounds of food to high-risk seniors in Blackduck.

Along with the food distribution, the BCFS also made several upgrades to its facility. A new roof worth $79,000 was installed, marking the largest expense for the organization aside from purchasing its current building.

The office space was also updated with new carpet and a new, larger walk-in freezer was installed. Kraus-Anderson Construction donated the carpet and the freezer was made possible thanks to a bequest from Merril Thiel, as well as a COVID-related grant and donations from Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union and MDU Resources.

In addition to those specific projects, the BCFS was also able to keep general operations running smoothly thanks to several other donations. In 2020, the food shelf had $631,968.44 in donations and $72,221.45 in grants.

"The community response was amazing, we are so humbled," Mitchell said. "At the beginning, we were scrambling and there were so many unknowns, and then the checks started coming in. It was just unbelievable. We are so grateful because it took that worry off of my plate, to not have to figure out how we can keep going."

The food shelf isn't just adding new equipment to improve its operation, the organization is also bringing food to those who live in the rural areas of Blackduck and Kelliher. In partnership with Women United and other local organizations, the food shelf has started ShelfSaver, a mobile food project .

Volunteers bring food to Blackduck from the Bemidji Community Food Shelf as part of the new ShelfSaver mobile food shelf program. Submitted photo.


The ShelfSaver truck will be at the North Beltrami Community Center in Kelliher from 1 to 3 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month and at the Evangelical Free Church in Blackduck from 9 to 11 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. Households will receive at least one pre-packed box of shelf-stable food.

With the mask mandate ending and other restrictions set to end in the coming months, Mitchell said the food shelf is anticipating the return to more normal operations.

"We're really looking forward to that," Mitchell said. "Giving the prepackaged food is something that predated the client choice model. When we moved to our current building, there was real excitement to client choice. It's sad for us since we feel we've had to take a step back with the packed boxes, but I know we did what we needed to do during the pandemic."

The return to normalcy will mark the conclusion of Mitchell's time with the BCSF, as she plans to retire in October. Mitchell has been with the food shelf for nearly eight years.

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