WABASHA — As Martha Black checks in Wabasha Area Food Share patrons on Thursday morning, five volunteers buzz around the small building, sorting and organizing fresh produce on the food share’s Veggie Table. Local gardeners donated almost half of this week’s fresh fruits and vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, squash, carrots, apples and a bounty of garden tomatoes.

“Except for the bananas, which were 29 cents a pound at Kwik Trip, I don’t think I paid any money for any of this,” Black, who is the

Wabasha Area Food Share

manager, said of the Veggie Table. “The produce we get through Channel One (Regional Food Bank) is also free for us.”

While the Veggie Table is full today, Black said there is less food in the United States’ food shelf system than ever before. And over the past year, demand for food has grown nationally and locally. Between August 2021 and August 2022, the number of households visiting Wabasha’s food share at least once a month tripled.

“This is the crisis we thought we were going to have when the pandemic hit,” Black said. “This is the hunger crisis.”

As food share patrons enter the building on Thursday mornings, a volunteer will roll a food service cart to them. Their first visit is to the Veggie Table up front; the fresh produce display is a recent addition to the food share made possible through the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership. In the next room, there are two grocery store-like aisles and a few large freezers and refrigerators.

“We are a ‘super shelf,’” Black said. “So super shelves are set up generally along the theme of organizing food by nutritional categories. … We start them off with proteins and then (canned) fruits and vegetables.”

Further down the aisle, patrons can grab pantry staples like flour, rice, cooking oil, spices and dried herbs.

“We can’t expect people to take a bunch of produce and not have any oil to cook with it,” Black said.

Those items, along with frozen foods, baked goods, boxed dinners, toiletries and a small selection of pet food, come from multiple sources. Much of the food share’s offerings are donated from the Kwik Trips in Wabasha and Kellogg, Aldi in Red Wing and the Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester.

Wabasha Food Share
Volunteer Michelle Gosse stocks donated bars of soap at the Wabasha Food Share on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Wabasha.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Black said food share patrons are invited to take however much they need. To qualify to use the food share, patrons just need to verify that their income is 300% or less of the

federal poverty guidelines

for their household size. The food shelf serves Minnesota residents and people from across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

“There’s so little required in terms of proof compared to a program like SNAP or WIC or other things where you’re filling out a lot of forms, you’re going through a whole interview, you have to submit your tax returns,” she said. “This is the last safety net before people hit the floor. And so because this is the last safety net, it needs to catch everyone.”

That has been more apparent than ever as demand for food has grown. Black said increased need began this spring and accelerated this summer as area residents faced high gas prices and inflation.

“We have more and more seniors enrolling every month,” she said. “That’s people on Social Security, and inflation is eating them alive.”

During August, Black recorded 573 individual visits to the food share, compared to 170 visits in August 2021. With the growing need, the food share has increased its output, distributing 16,334 pounds of food last month versus 5,763 pounds last August.

SHIP initiatives and volunteers

Black said the Wabasha-Kellogg community’s effort in combating the local hunger crisis has made a big difference.

“We are doing a really good job in our community,” she said.

Wabasha Food Share
Volunteers, Michelle Gosse, left, and Carol Schlueter, who is also on the board, work with produce at the Wabasha Food Share on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Wabasha.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

One local contributor to the food share is Faith Lutheran Church, which rents a community garden plot. Roxann Bronk said she and her husband, Edward Bronk, spend a few hours a week managing the plot through the church’s Faith in Action Committee. On Thursday, the two dropped off carrots, green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes.

“I’m just glad we can provide some fresh things,” Roxann said. “That’s our goal.”

Another community member, who asked to remain anonymous, grows potatoes for the food share in his 7,000-square-foot garden.

“I’m just one little volunteer among hundreds around here,” he said.

While he made monetary donations to the food share for years, he started his garden last year with the help of a retired farmer.

“I said, ‘Can I plow up your front lawn?’” he said. “He said, ‘No, but I got a space for you,’ and he had it all plowed for me on Easter Monday a year ago. … He plants a whole garden of watermelons, muskmelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and he gives it all away. He’s my inspiration also.”

He added that volunteers not only make a difference at the food share, but all around Wabasha.

“This town just explodes with volunteers. It really is amazing. … This town is alive because of volunteer service,” he noted.

One volunteer, Molly Rohe, has been donating her time to the food share since 2013, when she moved to Wabasha after teaching English in China.

“I didn’t have a job,” she said. “So I found out about the food shelf. I went there and met the director, and she was so nice. She gave me some food and said, ‘Why don’t you come and volunteer?’ And so I did.”

While she was able to find a job, Rohe said it was humbling having to visit a food shelf. Now, she volunteers one Thursday a month and also writes the thank-you notes that the food share sends to donors.

“The volunteer opportunities have helped me,” Rohe said. “They say it helps the community, which is very true, but it helps the person, too.”

Beyond the community’s support, the

Statewide Health Improvement Partnership

has also aided the Wabasha Area Food Share in expanding its services and offerings.

“We have partnered with (the food share) since 2016, and the focus has been on making healthy foods more accessible for people with the greatest inequities and disparities,” said Tina Moen, SHIP coordinator for Wabasha County. “Over the years, they have received $9,500 in grant funding from Wabasha County SHIP, and we’ve gotten other grants as well that have supported the work.”

Recent changes made through SHIP include the front-and-center Veggie Table and a change of venue for the Wabasha Farmers Market, which runs on Wednesday afternoons in the parking lot between the food share and the Wabasha Public Library.

“The Wabasha Food Share has been working hard to meet the needs of the demands, and they’re being creative in finding more ways to get more food,” Moen said. “It’s just been an ongoing effort, and people are really working hard to make it happen.”

In the midst of Thursday morning’s food share rush, Black helps a man unload a large tray of homegrown red and green bell peppers. She picks out a few damaged peppers and throws them in a plastic bag (moldy or otherwise unusable produce will be fed to her 100 chickens). After the man drops off his produce donation, he asks Black to add him to the queue so that he can also shop for food.

“We are trying to solve hunger in our community, and these peppers right now,” Black said as she sorted them, “they are solving hunger in our community.”



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