North St. Paul Area Food Shelf turns 40, adapts to changing face of poverty

Linda Zick and Crist Langelett are two of the driving forces behind the success of the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Linda Zick and Crist Langelett are two of the driving forces behind the success of the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
North St. Paul Area Food Shelf volunteer Jerry Lindahl, 82, reaches for a canned good while packing grocery bags for a client. He got involved through his church and works a shift every six weeks. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
North St. Paul Area Food Shelf volunteer Jerry Lindahl, 82, reaches for a canned good while packing grocery bags for a client. He got involved through his church and works a shift every six weeks. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)

On Tuesday, May 12, volunteers of the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf found themselves on the receiving end of a free meal.

Commemorating the nonprofit's 40th anniversary with a luncheon at K&J Catering in downtown North St. Paul, more than 50 volunteers gathered to reflect on their service and fuel up to meet growing demands.

The group — like most other local service organizations, including the Lions and American Legion — is mainly comprised of seniors. As is common with most of these groups, Carolyn Muske, 70, a volunteer and board member, says the food shelf struggles to attract younger participants who are tied up in career and family responsibilities. However, they have managed to keep the shelves well stocked and feed between 245 and 303 North St. Paul and Oakdale families each month.

Jim Muske, vice president of the food shelf, attributes their sustained volunteer support to the fact that volunteers get to see the impact of their labor first-hand.

"They can talk to [the recipients], feel the appreciation," Muske says.

It's a feel-good affair, but one that Muske would like to see diminish as those in need of food shelf services find their footing and gain or regain financial independence.

"It's a sad state of affairs that we had to still be around after 40 years — that people still need food," he says.

A makeshift beginning

The North St. Paul Area Food Shelf, located at 2538 E. Seppala Blvd. in downtown North St. Paul, began as a Christian youth center. Crist and his late wife Joanne Langelett had purchased the building in the spring of 1973, later remodeling it to include an apartment on the upper level.

In 1980, the North St. Paul Area Ministerial Association began discussing the need for a community food shelf. The following year, with the help of the third founder, the late John Mattson, the food shelf began operating from the basement of the youth center.

The initial arrangement proved cumbersome, as volunteers and recipients had to haul bags of groceries up and down stairs. So the food shelf was later moved to the ground floor at the back end of the building, with additional storage on the second floor.

"We were open only a couple hours twice a week. We never dreamed anything would come of it. [We] never thought it would become an official organization. In fact, we didn't even form a board of directors until the late '80s," Langelett recalls. "And back then, we had no idea that it would become part of the social safety net."

What started out as a three-person venture quickly grew to a service supported by more than 100 volunteers, helping to feed thousands of residents experiencing financial hardships in North St. Paul, Maplewood and Oakdale.

In 2012, the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf stopped servicing Maplewood, as a separate food shelf opened to respond to needs there. Today, two food shelves assist Maplewood residents in need of food support.

Seniors, singles most in need

Concentrating on two communities, rather than three, has proven no less demanding. In 2014, the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf served 10,172 needy individuals, distributed 309,615 pounds of food and gave out gift certificates totaling $14,000.

Of these, 239 were new clients. Roughly 59 percent of all clients served were North St. Paul residents and 41 percent were from Oakdale.

"On the food shelf, we had an increased demand," says Dave Zick, president of the nonprofit. "But because of the generosity and our great volunteers, we're able to meet the demand."

The majority of the donated and reduced-priced food comes from Costco, Cub Foods, Olive Garden, Knowlan's Fresh Foods and Second Harvest, along with other area donors.

Monday through Friday volunteers pick up shifts to both sort inventory — marking expired food items that are still safe to eat to be taken at clients' discretion — and packaging up grocery carts based on orders that have been placed for pick up.

As noted by a number of lead volunteers, recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the types of recipients placing orders.

"The need has changed in the sense that we have more singles — both old and young," Carolyn Muske says.

In her estimates, higher costs of living have hit young singles and the elderly hardest, as they struggle to come up with enough money to buy groceries after paying off all their bills for rent, utilities, insurance and other monthly fees.

Even those who have jobs, she explains, may not be able to afford an adequate amount of groceries, not to mention items that are nutritious, without some added support from the food shelf.

Focus on nutrition education

For both seniors and young clients alike, social stigmas associated with going to a food shelf persist. That's why volunteers at the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf are invested in making the experience both comfortable and confidential.

When Jane Klein, 64, is working as a greeter at the door every Thursday and Friday, she likes to break the ice for newcomers by telling them, "I'm glad you found us."

She says, "When they come in, you can kind of tell they're brand new. I think it's humbling to come look for help."

It's a feeling Angela Pankratz, 69, says marks that initial visit, but quickly subsides.

"I felt a little embarrassed at first," she says, noting she started coming after her husband died and she could no longer stay on top of her household bills. "But these people are so nice. They couldn't be friendlier, more helpful."

Jen Mallinger, 43, one of the food shelf's youngest volunteers, deals with some emotionally draining situations as a social worker. But she says she was drawn to the food shelf because she enjoys helping clients discover that same sense of comfort and relief.

"Working at a place like a food shelf, it fills you up, give you a sense of satisfaction," she says. "Everyone can fall on hard times. Everyone can have need. To be there for someone else is powerful."

Beyond the food and the relationships, the food shelf is also becoming a place for nutrition education.

A master gardener, Klein has taken initiative to provide recipe tips to clients coming in to pick up their groceries — especially as their bags include more and more fresh produce.

Since most of the produce they receive at the food shelf is already near its expiration date, Klein says it's important to inform recipients on how to best preserve foods like spinach, green beans, kale and other vegetables and fruits so they don't spoil.

Her go-to suggestion, especially for those with kids, is to freeze spinach and crumble a bit into a pan of eggs to make green eggs with a side of ham.

"I think a future focus is not just giving food, but feeding them," she says. "Apples and oranges and good salads will keep them fed and healthy."

Donations may be sent by check or money order to the food shelf. Food donations can be dropped off at the food shelf between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Donation boxes are located at Cub Foods on White Bear Avenue, North St. Paul City Hall and local churches.

Mary Lee Hagert contributed to this story.

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.


The forces behind a growing need

In 1982, the first full year the food shelf was in operation, 719 families and individuals received assistance. In 1982, that number tripled to 2,027. And in 1984, it grew to 3,478.

Since then, the food shelf’s footprint has continued to grow.

In 2014, the North St. Paul Area Food Shelf served 10,172 individuals, distributed 309,615 pounds of food and gave out gift certificates totaling $14,000.

Looking back at a March 1985 article on the food shelf in the Review, Karen McRunnel, then secretary of the nonprofit, said they were seeing an increase in families with two parents and two or three children who were living comfortably until the father got laid off.

“Soon the unemployment [checks] run out and they can’t make it on minimum wage,” McRunnel said at the time.

Back then, they were also receiving calls from the young, old, married, single families, employed and unemployed.

While the food shelf, today, continues to serve people across the spectrum, founder Crist Langelett says he’s seen a rise in the number of single mothers coming in for assistance.

Even when the economy is strong, he says, these one-parent households need to draw from outside resources.

“Those mothers struggle to make ends meet and, because of their circumstances, often can’t work full time. Or they can only find part-time jobs.” He paused for a moment and then added, “It’s sad to see hungry children” coming to the food shelf with their mothers.

In addition to single mothers, volunteers say there’s been an uptick in the number of seniors and young individuals coming to the food shelf.

“Seniors used to feel too much pride to come in to get help,” Linda Zick, director and treasurer of the food shelf said, noting increased rent and utility bills are now maxing out their monthly budgets, forcing them to seek assistance.

 

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