One of the longest-running food shelves in the area — St. Johns Food Shelf in Wykoff — will be promoting food and cash collections throughout March, which is Minnesota FoodShare Month.

The collections will be at St. Johns Lutheran Church every Sunday at the door, although other churches might be collecting food, too, said St. Johns Food Shelf co-director Norman Eickhoff. Wykoff’s food shelf is opened to families in the Wykoff area on the third Saturday of the month to help stretch their shoestring budgets to stave off food insecurity, or the uncertainty that there will be enough food for everyone in the family to enjoy a healthful and satisfying meal at breakfast or the meals after that throughout the month.

Eickhoff and his wife, Ruth, have been co-directors of the area’s longtime church-operated food shelf for just over a year, but they’ve been volunteers for as long as they can remember. Norman noted that the food shelf is entirely volunteer-run and that it has been in existence since 1983, one of the longest-running in the area.

“We’ve had pretty near all the members of the congregation working there in one way or another,” he said in an interview last spring. “Thursday is when we have the most people involved. Some of us leave at noon to pick up food at Channel One in Rochester, and while we’re picking up food, there’s a group of other workers who are filling bags for families of one, two, up to seven and eight, so we serve close to 300 people. We usually arrive back at the church around 2 p.m., and if there are any older church school kids, they help us unload the truck.”

Most of the goods the St. Johns Food Shelf distributes are items ordered through Channel One because cash donations to a food shelf participating in Hunger Solutions, the organization that sponsors Minnesota FoodShare, can be maximized through that avenue. When the Wykoff Food Shelf picks up food at Channel One, it’s usually 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. As a member of Hunger Solutions, the amount is based on the number of people it serves.

Non-perishable canned, boxed and bottled goods are brought back and sorted by the volunteers into bags and boxes appropriate to each household’s needs. With the addition of a refrigerator-freezer made possible last fall through a $1,000 grant from Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless, the St. Johns Food Shelf is no longer as limited in regard to what it can bring back to store for distribution. Previously the volunteers were storing frozen and refrigerated goods in the St. Johns church refrigerator, but now that it has its own dedicated refrigerator-freezer, there’s a little more room to save frozen or cold foods.

The coordinators still need to see that in-season fruits and vegetables are given away before they spoil. Eickhoff related that most often, the biggest shortage the volunteers find is of fruit, but sometimes the food shelf is fortunate enough to receive potatoes, oranges and apples or other produce.

“We got the freezer in November, and it has been very helpful,” he said.

Not only is the St. Johns Food Shelf a place to obtain supplemental food, but it is also a place to find donated items such as paper and health products, such as paper towel, toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, women’s hygiene products, dish soap and other everyday essentials that make people ready to face the day. Diapers are always the true shortage in that department, as Eickhoff had remarked “we sometimes get diapers, but they’re not always available, and it’s hard to tell what sizes we would need…but they always go quickly.”

He observed that while most people may feel inclined to donate food directly to the food shelf, the volunteers in charge of the ordering process can stretch cash donations further through Hunger Solutions and Minnesota FoodShare.

“The way we operate, mostly, is that people give cash donations. Money is always the best thing. If they give $1, we go to Channel One and buy $10 worth of food with the same that they would spend at the grocery store, and that $1 does as much as $10 does in the grocery store,” said Eickhoff. “It’s a lot bigger companies we’re dealing with, so that cash donation is probably worth 10 times what a can donated to the food shelf can do. We’ve been getting gifts from a lot of different people, and since March is FoodShare month, we can promote that…we prefer cash because we can make it go a lot further.”

However, Eickhoff related that that doesn’t necessarily mean that food and hygiene product donations will be turned away – non-perishable items are the basis upon which the food shelf operates to ensure its existence – and the volunteers certainly welcome summertime bumper crops of sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, kohlrabi for the adventurous eater and zucchini of any proportion if given close to the distribution day so that they don’t expire during the wait.

“The things we need the most are cereal, canned fruit and vegetables,” he said. “We don’t have much for canned fruit, like peaches and pears, and we like that those always keep, because we don’t always have enough refrigeration for them.”

Presently, the food shelf’s biggest wish list item is that their truck keeps running since it doesn’t have the food delivered.

“We’ve had problems with our truck again, and it’s been the biggest expense, keeping it fixed. I think we’ve got it fixed for now,” said Eickhoff. “We have a lot of food on hand…everything is pretty much full, but our truck is the biggest expense.”

St. Johns’ food distribution registration is done “on the spot,” according to Eickhoff, who listed the qualifications for applying for assistance as “having a Minnesota address,” since Wykoff is so close to the Iowa border. The number of families the food shelf has served has fluctuated over the months and years, as the economy dictates the need.

“It’s been going up and down. It has been up as high as over 130 families,” he said. “We used to have income guidelines, but it isn’t required at this time. People can also get more information through the church office.”

He shared why he and Ruth feel that it is important to be co-directors at this juncture in time.

“I just like helping, just lending a helping hand. I don’t feel anybody in the state of Minnesota should go hungry,” he said. “We’ve got support from the state Legislature, with money into Channel One, but people can tell our legislators to keep supporting us, and they can always pray for us.”

The St. Johns Lutheran Church Food Shelf is open the third Saturday of each month from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The church, with a steeple so tall it can be seen for miles, is located on Line Street on Wykoff’s west side. For more information on how to donate cash, food or hygiene and paper items, call the St. Johns Lutheran Church office at 507-352-2296.