PRESTON, Minn. — Despite the funding by U.S. Department of Agriculture to supply food shelves during the pandemic, donations from the community and smart purchases by food shelves are what keeps rural food shelves thriving.

Laura Grebin, food shelf manager in Preston in southern Minnesota is in her first year in the position. The food shelf, which has existed for more 30 years, is housed in the bottom level of an assisted living facility.

"This is such an important part of this community," said Grebin of the food shelf in Preston. "And the community supports it so well."

Grebin said about 190 families rely on the food they get from the Preston food shelf.

"It's very significant," she said of the amount of people they help.

The food shelf is seeing a significant increase because of the pandemic, said Grebin, and they've had numerous calls from people newly unemployed and looking for assistance immediately. She said after getting information from clients over the phone, they get to work on preparing boxes for them.

The food available at the shelf in Preston can be split into three categories: monthly boxes, milk and produce. Three meats come in each box, consisting usually of a pound of ground beef and two other items.

Grebin said the shelf is currently getting donations of milk from Casey's General Store, but when they aren't getting enough donations they're able to buy milk from Kwik Trip. They buy their produce from the Channel One food bank.

"Clients get 15 pounds per person per month, so a family of four would get 60 pounds," Grebin said.

Items that are included in one box of products for clients at the Preston community food shelf. (Noah Fish/nfish@agweek.com)
Items that are included in one box of products for clients at the Preston community food shelf. (Noah Fish/nfish@agweek.com)

Produce, milk and bread are considered free weight and don't count against poundage.

The community had a food drive on the Saturdays during the pandemic, and Grebin said she was "blown away by the amount that was donated."

The food drive collected 905 pounds of items and $2,275 in cash donations.

"That was pretty amazing, for a community event," she said.

Grebin said because the community in Preston has stepped up in a big way, they're OK with not getting federal assistance directly for COVID-19 complications.

She said the prices they pay at Channel One are less than at the IGA grocery store and USDA items are free to them (she gets USDA meat twice a month). Channel One makes it easiest to order supplies for the shelf, said Grebin, as they have everything online.

"I go through a couple times a week to see what's been added, then they deliver it," she said.

Grebin said that clients to the food shelf have "come to expect there's always going to be meat", so they would gladly accept the USDA food boxes. As of May 27, she hadn't heard any information about them.

She said they have room to store meat boxes, with three chest freezers and three fridges with room to spare.

Food shelf in Chatfield

The Community Food Shelf in Chatfield Minn., is about 30 minutes away from the one in Preston, inside the Chatfield United Methodist Church. It's run by Debra Collum, pastor of the church, and Steve Strickler, coordinator of the shelf.

The food shelf has remained open for regular business hours during the pandemic, said Collum, and she encourages any Chatfield resident in need of food to stop in.

Clients of the Chatfield shelf are allowed to visit the location once a month for canned goods and staples and once a week for items like produce, bread and anything refrigerate. Because of COVID-19, residents need to schedule an appointment with food shelf staff to pick up food when they're alone.

Collum said the shelf gets about 30 clients a month, which is a significant amount for a city of around 3,000.

The food shelf gets meat donations from companies who are selling it for cheap enough. They get produce from Serio Farms in Preston, which supplies the shelf with lettuce and tomatoes, and milk from Kappers Big Red Barn in Chatfield, which donates weekly.

Debra Collum, church pastor and director of the Community Food Shelf in Chatfield Minn., looks over the boxes packaged for food shelf clients. (Noah Fish/nfish@agweek.com)
Debra Collum, church pastor and director of the Community Food Shelf in Chatfield Minn., looks over the boxes packaged for food shelf clients. (Noah Fish/nfish@agweek.com)

On May 27, Collum said she wasn't aware of the USDA's food box program but said it sounded like something they would be interested in.

"Our clients would love that," she said of the boxes of meat and dairy. "We absolutely would take them."

She opened up "a weekend backpack" which contained eight to 10 food items. There were cans of lima beans, cans of corn, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of navy beans and some other processed foods items.

"We really don't like to complain, but folks can't always use all these things," she said of the boxes of canned products. "We'd prefer our clients got more nutritional items, so we'd love some wholesome foods."

There are two large fridges in a room of the church dedicated to food shelf items, which Collum said are used to store eggs, milk and other dairy items. In the next smaller room, are two chest freezers which could be filled with meat. The chest freezers were obtained through grants, Collum said.

"Every room in this church has three uses," said Collum, walking into the room that serves as a nursery, Sunday school classroom, choir room and food storage.

The food shelf has taken in more than $10,000 in donations in the last two months, said Collum, which is the most in a two-month period in the eight years she's been running the shelf. They use the funding to buy food at local grocery stores and sometimes Aldi.

"We buy from whoever has the prices we can afford," she said.