Having access to enough healthy food for every person in our communities should be considered as sacred as clean water, clean air and healthcare. Fact, we have enough good food to feed every person. Fact, hundreds of children and adults in our very own communities go to bed many nights hungry. They are our neighbors, fellow students, parishioners and coworkers. They often work multiple jobs to make ends meet and even then can come up short of the resources necessary to feed their families. Often these are families who depend on a single parent. They have to make difficult decisions on a regular basis deciding whether to pay for a healthcare need, housing or food from week to week or even day to day. One misstep, one bad break can send their world into a tailspin with dire consequences. Paycheck to paycheck defines the boundary between eating and not eating. There is not a reasonable, compassionate person alive who believes obtaining food should ever have to be one of those decisions for any person. So why does hunger persist on our doorstep?

“Our clients are hard working people, disabled people and seniors. It’s the person who broke their arm and now they have medical bills, or they have to choose between buying milk and a dozen eggs or fixing the car to go to work, or something happened to their kid. They don’t have any room for bad luck, there’s no margin for error,” said Lynn Harstad, President of the Somerset Community Food Pantry.   

An answer that frequently comes up in this discussion is pride, people who need food are too proud to ask for help. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be strong, with wanting to be able to provide for those who depend on you. In America, we admire that kind of strength and resilience. We aspire to that standard. But being proud is not a requirement of being human. Circumstances can conspire against the best of us.

When a community somehow knowingly or unwittingly makes it uncomfortable or embarrassing for someone to ask for help, it is defeating the whole idea behind community. Communities need to be proactive in reaching out to folks who need help. They need to recognize the unfortunate circumstances, understand that it is no one’s fault, that no one wants to be hungry, and that someone who is, will be the first person to do everything possible to no longer be hungry. To get there, they sometimes need a hand.

Not ever having been hungry, it is hard to appreciate or understand what it means to not be able to afford food. But not understanding cannot become an excuse for ignoring or denying the truth of hunger. No one should ever be hungry, period. Whatever it takes.   

“Whatever it takes,” sums up the attitude at the Somerset Community Food Pantry because that is what people like Harstad, Fundraising and Outreach Manger Cindy Jonas-Christen, and Food Pantry Manager Jean Wendt believe. They wrestle every day with how to connect people to the food they so desperately need. Pantry staff and volunteers are more determined than ever to defeat hunger in Somerset.

“According to the census reports, there are more people out there that can use our help. We’re here to help and we want them to come and we’ll find a way to help them. If someone is home bound we will bring the food to them. Somerset is a pretty loving community. They have been very generous with us,” said Jonas-Christen.

A lot has changed since the News last visited the pantry.

The pantry has nearly doubled its space in the old Grace Place building. Funding provided by the Lakeview Foundation paid for renovations to the new space including a new retail shopping area and additional offices. The additional space incorporates a large new glass paneled cooler paid for by the Somerset Knights of Columbus. Nutritionists and staff from Health Partners shared their expertise in redesigning the retail shopping space to better promote healthy food and fresh produce.

The pantry celebrated the new renovations with an open house on Wednesday, July 19. Tours were available.

So far in 2017, the pantry has served 180 families in Somerset through the regular food pantry service. It has served 106 seniors averaging six seniors each week through outreach to the senior center. The pantry’s backpack program feeds approximately 16 elementary students every week during the school year.

“Teachers are buying food for their classrooms. They are spending their personal money to feed their kids,” said Harstad, who also works as the school district’s Pupil Services Administrative Assistant.   

As a result of teacher interventions, the pantry began stocking mini-pantries at each of the public schools to feed children who come to school without the food that they need to focus in class. So far in 2017, those pantries have served 434 students. The mini-pantries include items like soup, mac and cheese, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, crackers and juice.

“In Somerset, we know our numbers for free and reduced lunches could be much higher. People aren’t utilizing it. We don’t know if there is a stigma attached to it or if they don’t want to fill out the paperwork, we don’t know what the reason is. We make sure our snacks are not sugary cereal, sugary snacks, or candy. Starting this year, we have the free and reduced lunch forms available here (at the pantry) and are available to help parents fill them out,” said Harstad.   

This summer, the pantry began a pilot program providing breakfasts for students attending summer school. Adventure Camp enables teachers to invite kids to attend the summer session for a learning need like reading or math which automatically includes quick snacks like granola bars, fresh fruit and water to start the day.

A grant from the St. Croix Valley Community Foundation (SCVCF) has enabled the pantry to purchase CSA shares (fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables) from Threshing Table Farm. This summer, the pantry’s new fresh produce distributions on Thursday evenings, including produce from Threshing Table Farm and donated fresh produce from United Way St. Croix Valley, have served 26 families since beginning on June 15.

The SCVCF grant also provided funds for the pantry to provide $10 certificates to clients with children to tour the farm and pick their own produce. It is an opportunity for families to learn more about how the food is grown.

Harstad and Christen are grateful for all the volunteer support from the community and particularly the efforts by students. They noted the schools have a great track record of helping out at the food pantry, from volunteering to help paint as part of the renovation, to service learning projects designed to raise money or collect food, to middle school dances where the price of admission is donated food, to football team members helping move furniture.

“We can always use more volunteers, however we were blessed this past fall when the student council stepped up and helped with the meat raffles. That was a real plus for us,” said Christen.

Harstad and her staff are working on ideas designed to let more people know the pantry is available and to erase the stigma attached to asking for help. Neighbors help neighbors, no judgment. Food pantries need to become cool, like gas stations and banks, barber shops and beauty parlors, a place to transact life until everyone has the food they need and we no longer need pantries. No one should ever be considered any less for asking for help.

The regular pantry hours are 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. Mondays and 4-6 p.m. Thursdays and by appointment. For more information, contact Harstad by phone at 715-690-7027 or visit somersetfoodpatry.org.