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Somerset Food Pantry officials look to connect food with need

Jessica Francis, board president of the Somerset Community Food Pantry (left) and fundraising and outreach coordinator, Cindy Claason (right), realize people first need to know the pantry is open before they can take advantage of its food, so they are doing whatever it takes to help people find the pantry. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

“We need people to know that we are here and that we are flexible in ways to help them, specifically in terms of our hours. We are available by appointment if people can’t make our posted hours. Just give us a call. If you can’t find transportation to get here, call us anyway and we’ll see if we can find a volunteer to deliver food to you. We are more than the bag of non-perishable food.”

That was Jessica Francis, board president of the Somerset Community Food Pantry. Since October 2014, the pantry has occupied the former home of Grace Place, behind St. Anne’s Church at 203 Church Hill Road in Somerset.

The pantry’s biggest struggle has been letting families and individuals who are hungry know they are here and anxious to help.

“In our school district, almost 30 percent of the families qualify for free and reduced school lunch. Right now, we’re serving about 40 families a month. We also operate a backpack program for kids during the school year so those kids are getting food every week as well. The schools are telling us, they know there are a lot of kids going hungry,” said Francis.

The backpack program serves about 25, most elementary students, according to recently-hired fundraising and outreach coordinator Cindy Claason.

“Everybody’s eligible, it’s just that some don’t participate,” said Claason.

Overcoming the stigma attached to being hungry is a big challenge. Knowing there are many more people out there who need food but for whatever reasons are unwilling or unable to take advantage of the resources at the pantry is one of the primary challenges for both Francis and Claason.

“We know that the need is much greater. In addition to children and families we also serve a number of seniors. The clinic tells us that the need is significant in Somerset compared to other localities,” said Francis.

According to Francis, one of the obstacles the pantry has been fighting to overcome is the perception held by many of the people who frequented Grace Place, that since Grace Place left town, there is no longer a pantry in Somerset.

“Initially our numbers dropped because people didn’t think there was a pantry here anymore. Now our numbers are increasing again. We hired Cindy as our outreach coordinator and front loaded her work to focus on outreach, meeting with the clinics and all sorts of people to try to raise awareness,” said Francis.

The pantry receives most of its food from a combination of local drives, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and the United Way St. Croix Valley Food Resource Center. The pantry also provides coupons clients can redeem at Econo Foods for milk and they have just partnered with Econo Foods on a “buy a bag” program at the store.

“Scouts, schools, churches. We’ve been pretty fortunate. The school has really provided us with quite a bit of food and now Econo Foods “buy a bag” program will provide even more,” said Claason.

“We actually have a lot of food, but we’re always trying to increase the amount of food we give out. We strive to provide a week’s worth of food for each client,” said Francis.

It takes roughly five volunteers, two working with clients and three more stocking when the pantry when it is open and serving clients, and so far volunteers keep showing up. Food pantry manager Jean Wendt also does a great job managing the volunteers.

“We continually get new volunteers. Every other week or so, someone else is stepping forward. We recently met with school counselors and psychologists and we’ve gotten a few of them to step forward and they are spreading the word. But we can always use more volunteers,” said Claason.

Both Francis and Claason are grateful for the support the pantry receives from community organizations but know they must continue to build more of those relationships if the pantry is to flourish. In her role as outreach coordinator, Claason has already reached out to SMC Ltd. and is planning to contact other corporations within the community.

“We get a lot of support from the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club and many of the churches in Somerset. We’ve talked about the American Legion, Auxiliary and the VFW as organizations we should partner more with. And we hope to form a long-term relationship with the Somerset Community Foundation. They provided us with a grant our first year and helped us get started, including helping us with our 501(C)3 application,” said Francis.

Another need for the pantry is cash. As part of a two-year Challenge Grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, the pantry has an opportunity receive up to $8,500 in matching funds if they can raise $8,500 themselves by the end of this year.

Francis and Claason has several items on their wish list.

A redesign of the pantry space to make it flow better and provide better access for clients would also allow the pantry to display fresh fruits and vegetables up front to encourage healthy eating for clients. A redesign that will incorporate more of the available space could also provide more room for refrigerators and freezers to increase the pantry’s capacity to provide meat and produce. Incorporating a software program like Pantry Saver would allow the pantry to become much more efficient in terms of monitoring inventory, gathering client data, managing volunteers, and organizing data into reports that could help with fund-raising.

“Our first priority is to do whatever it takes to help more people find us. It’s a matter of connecting the two, the food with the people who need the food,” said Francis.

The Somerset Community Food Pantry is open Monday, 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., and Thursday, 4-6 p.m. For more information, call the pantry at 715-247-2945, send an email to somersetfoodpantry@gmail.com, or visit somersetfoodpantry.org.

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