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Still going and busier than ever

River Falls Food Pantry helpers are all smiles when they're occupied with deliveries. Above, by the computer, Rick Pechacek, food pantry board president; Janna Carl, food pantry director; and Duayne Larson, a 20-year-volunteer worker. Larson has just brought up a cartful of goods from the front of Ezekiel Lutheran Church. Food donors can make dropoffs in a shopping cart near the entrance whenever church doors are open. Phil Pfuehler photo

Statistics can glaze the eyes but the ones Rick Pechacek gives are eye openers.

When he started volunteering at the River Falls Food Pantry in 2005, an average of 150 families a month relied on free groceries to get by.

Four years later the average number of families using the food pantry each month has nearly doubled. And the amount of food given to recipients has tripled.

"It's a great concern," said Pechacek, who's retired but devotes countless hours not only as food pantry board president but also supervising daily operations. "There's a lot of food going out and I've got to have more food coming in.

"I can't thank the community enough for how they've supported us, but it's a continual struggle to keep this place going. We're only going to make it if that great support continues."

Pechacek says data from United Way and other social service agencies show that 14% of River Falls area residents go hungry each day.

"That's why we're here," he said. "It's as plain as that."

River Falls Food Pantry Director Janna Carl says the growing food output presents another challenge.

"Our limited storage space means we have to constantly rotate and restock our shelves," she said. "We have close to 1,000 square feet for the pantry and storage needs. This enables us to have on hand at any given time between five and six thousand pounds of food. In August we distributed 18,470 pounds of grocery related goods."

Carl said food pantry organizers are looking for a bigger site, a central location within walking distance for city residents. The reason: Many clients walk to the Food Pantry.

Operating first out of a closet, the River Falls Food Pantry has been at Ezekiel Lutheran Church for more than two decades.

After the church's renovation/expansion several years ago, the food pantry was given more room. It's now on the second floor with a Walnut Street entrance near the alley.

Carl emphasized that feeding the hungry is a local issue. Almost all food pantry recipients come from the River Falls School District.

Those who live elsewhere are served once, then referred to a closer food pantry. Carl said there's a network of food pantries. They all stay in touch.

The recession and high unemployment have had an obvious effect on the River Falls Food Pantry.

"What I found so interesting is the number of new households each month," Carl said. "August, we had 22 new households, July was 16. Now this month we have 15. It tells me that we are reaching more people.

"This is not the same people month after month. Some people are getting on their feet, while others are reaching out for help."

Carl has observed another trend that reflects troubling times.

"The numbers we're serving are up but it hasn't been explosive," Carl said. "What has changed in the last year is that people aren't leaving anymore with half-filled grocery bags.

"They're really packing each bag and taking full advantage, as they should, with what we offer. It's all to make those meals stretch and last longer."

To meet increasing demand, Carl said the food pantry has linked with an array of food service providers:

  • SuperValu, Hudson (overstock), and Wal-Mart, New Richmond, unsold shelf products and produce.
  • Dick's Fresh Market and EconoFoods, River Falls, discount purchases.
  • Emergency Food Shelf Network, Hudson.
  • United Way Resource Center, Hudson
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Ellsworth
  • Second Harvest Heartland, St. Paul, national food bank (monthly shipments come to River Falls, but must be unloaded by volunteers).

    These providers supplement the ebb and flow of local donations -- from individuals, schools, the university, clubs and organizations.

    "But we still need the local ones because they give us a diversity and uniqueness that is missing from the regular providers," Carl said. "I'm talking about the need we always have for canned or fresh fruit, vegetables like corn, healthy snacks for kids, sauce mixes, and more varieties of pasta beside elbow macaroni and spaghetti noodles."

    Carl said the food pantry has never turned away a client because of bare shelves: "We have our ups and downs, with the shelves occasionally half or two-thirds empty. The closest we've come to closing is because of lack of volunteers.

    Biggest needs?

    The current food pantry shortage is with volunteers. Carl said usually there are 40 or more but that's down by half.

    "For one thing, we need more (able-bodied) drivers, especially people with trucks who can pick up food shipments from some of our sources, bring them back here, unload and help put things away, " Carl said. "We could use anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen more drivers."

    The food pantry also needs volunteers to work the 2-2 1/2 hour shifts when the pantry's open.

    These volunteers greet and check clients in, do minor restocking of shelves and cleanup chores, weigh outgoing groceries, and record data on a computer. No money is kept at the food pantry.

    Each shift operates with two volunteers. The tandem is a safety precaution and to make sure clients are served without undo waiting.

    Volunteers must be 18 but a husband and wife could bring a younger son or daughter to assist and for the experience.

    "I'd also really like to find someone to set up an interactive calendar for our website," said Carl about her search for tech-savvy volunteer.

    Financial donations are always needed. Carl said the River Falls Food Pantry is on the verge of becoming a 501c nonprofit. Approval is pending with the IRS.

    "Once we have that designation, it should improve our fundraising and ability to obtain grants from places like Andersen Windows," Carl said.

    If you want to volunteer at the River Falls Food Pantry, call 425-8294 or e-mail

    To mail check donations, send to River Falls Community Food Pantry/c/o Ezekiel Lutheran Church/202 S. Second St./River Falls, WI 54022.

    Food pantry shifts and hours are:

  • Monday, 9:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.; 6:15-8:15 p.m.
  • Wednesday, 12:45-3 p.m.; 3-5:15 p.m.
  • Thursday, 6:15-8:15 p.m
  • Friday, 9:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  • Saturday, 9:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

    Said Carl: "We're still here, and we still need help in multiple ways to keep up with the growing demand for what we provide."

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