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Food shelves looking at March food drive to replenish stock

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Cathy Maes
Cathy Maes is the executive director of ICA food shelf in Minnetonka. She said the stock on their shelves becomes pretty bleak at the end of January and in to Febuary. The March food drive helps replenish their stores of food at ICA.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

The plea could come at the grocery store, at church, or in your company email. But there's a good chance someone is going to ask you to donate to a food shelf this month.

March is the month for the Minnesota FoodShare campaign, a statewide food drive that is a big deal for food shelves.

Food shelf coordinators like Mustafa Sundiata depend on it. At the NorthPoint Community Food Shelf in Minneapolis — just a small room, in a basement — the food is a lifeline for some 33,000 people each year.

"It is huge," Sundiata said of the March campaign. "It is very important."

Last year, Sundiata brought in enough during March to cover nearly 40 percent of the food he gave out during the year.

"We're looking for it to be more than that this year," Sundiata said. "We really need it."

March might seem like a random month for a food drive, but organizers say it's an ideal time to hold one.

Mustafa Sundiata
Mustafa Sundiata is the Food Shelf Coordinator at NorthPoint's Community Food Shelf in north Minneapolis. Since 2005, the number of people served by NorthPoint Food Shelf has grown by 60 percent.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"We come out of December, when everybody loves us, into January and February, when our food shelf becomes pretty bleak," said Cathy Maes, executive director of ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka.

Minnesotans generally forget about food shelves after the winter holidays, she said.

The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches launched the first spring campaign in early 1983. March became a big month for the campaign a couple of years later after food shelf directors determined that the need was greater then. The month also usually coincides with Lent, a season of prayer and sacrifice in which many Christians also help the less fortunate.

Congregations all over the state give to their local food shelves. ICA Food Shelf benefits from a drive at Minnetonka United Methodist Church. This year, the church held a Fat Tuesday celebration during Mardi Gras. Families at Minnetonka United listened to jazz and ate a pancake dinner, raising about $600.

It's a modest amount, but scenes like this repeat themselves all over the state this month. Raffles, auctions, even Nintendo Wii dance tournaments. Last year, they added up to an all-time high of $7.3 million and 4.6 million pounds of food.

Sue Kainz, campaign coordinator for Minnesota FoodShare, aimed for a similar amount this year - in part because she worries the high rate of giving won't last.

"Should we raise it and push people?" she asked. "You get to a point, where [you ask] 'can we push people too much further?' I don't know."

Kainz wants to push because the need has increased significantly. Statewide, visits to food shelves jumped 62 percent from 2008 to 2010.

The March food drive is successful, Kainz said, because there's a secret ingredient: Minnesota companies. Major Minnesota companies, including food producers General Mills and Cargill, have been contributing since the very first year. Companies and their employees give to local food shelves. But many, including Medtronic, Honeywell and others, also put money in a special fund. Minnesota FoodShare uses that fund to reward food shelves for their successful drives.

Sue Kainz says the early numbers for the March drive look good. But Sundiata is already worrying about summer because that's the busiest time for food shelves, when children are home, eating out of the cupboards.

Kainz said charitable groups in other states approached her about copying Minnesota's March drive, but found they could not duplicate the state's model of giving.

"They just said they just didn't think it would ever, ever happen because they don't have the corporate support that we have here," she said.

Employees at General Mills are trying to collect both food and dollars that the General Mills Foundation will match.

Since the economic downturn it's been easier to convince people to contribute because the need is easier to grasp, said Pam Olsen, a General Mills employee who helps run the drive.

"People recognize how close people live to the line right now," she said. "They recognize that anything could turn, even my life into having that need."

At the food shelf in north Minneapolis, Sundiata hopes to bring in a lot of financial and food contributions this month. He'd prefer dollars because they allow him to buy goods from food banks, where the money goes father. But even then, the food won't last long, perhaps until late May.

If the economy doesn't improve, he said, it might not go that far.

"When you project out, and you look at the rising gas prices, and what may fall out of that during the summer months, I don't even know if the March food campaign will last us as long as it has been lasting," Sundiata said. "We'll see."