WESTBROOK, Minnesota (STPNS) --     westbrook —  In Minnesota households visiting food shelves has risen dramatically. From 2007 to 2011 households visiting nearly doubled from 673,631 in 2007 to 1,076,912 in 2011. That number relates to approximately 7 to 10 percent of Minnesota’s population using food shelves on a regular basis, visits are not unique. These figures do not include food stamp use. That is a lot of people in need of food to feed their families.

    For some reason Cottonwood County has seen a marked increase in food shelf use. From 2002 to 2010 Cottonwood County saw relatively low use of food shelves serving about 900 to 1000 family visits. However in 2011 family visits rose to nearly 15,000. Number of households which visited food shelves, counted at each visit,

from datacenter.kidscount.org.

    As you may know March is Hunger Share Month in Minnesota. According  to food shelf director Kathy Zens,  “while the need for food is all year long, this is the time of year there is a state-wide effort to get food and donations.” Dollar for dollar donations get far more food than regular donations. For every dollar donation, approximately 10 dollars worth of food can be purchased. “But Zens was quick to say, “we always welcome donations of food at Mary and Martha’s Pantry.”

    She said “we always need a variety of canned goods, from canned meats, tuna, fruit, vegetables, cereal, baking supplies, cake mixes, condiments, personal hygiene items like toothpaste, disposable diapers, shampoo, hand soap, laundry detergent, and paper products.”

    Zens said, “we are not fussy, we can use just about any food or hygiene products. We also have put together birthday bags for kids, along with that we have a few toys that each child can pick from.” There is even shelves with quilts donated by local church groups, some small household items are taken in like kitchen accessories, dishes, flatware, pots and pans or anything that is usable for the house hold, with the exception of large items. Zens noted, they have some people bring in fresh garden produce during the summer months.

    According to Zens the front of the building will be getting a facelift putting in new smaller energy efficient windows, and making more space for the waiting area. When that  is done they are planning an open house some time in the near future.

    There are five full time volunteers and a few part time volunteers working at the Pantry. However Zens says “we can always use more volunteers.”

    Zens is very appreciative of area organizations and churches that provide so much with their various projects. Some  of the churches donate quilts from time to time. One of the school classes brought in Christmas gifts for kids and donated them to be used in Christmas bags. Another project that raises a lot of money and food donations is the Thanksgiving 5K run sponsored by Sanford Medical Center  in Westbrook.

    Second Harvest Heartland provides a lot of food for the pantry. Some of the food is provided free,  and some of the food the Pantry pays for at a greatly reduced price. The Second Harvest truck delivers food once a month. They also receive weekly food through a program called The Emergency Food Assistance Program. It consists of fresh produce including all types of fruit and vegetables, baked goods, frozen foods including pizza, meat, and eggs.

    Mary and Martha’s Pantry is owned and operated by Western Community Action out of Marshall. They have programs to teach people how to prepare meals using foods available from the food shelves. “We hope to have one of these demonstrations in the near future,” Zens said.

    The  pantry is used by about 50 families per month, and about 3,400 pounds of food is given out each month for approximately 150 people.

    “The need does not seem to be going down,” said Zens. There are a lot of people, particularly the elderly who don’t feel they should take advantage of food shelves or food stamps. “She says, “if you need the help — you need the help— get it, it’s out there.”

    Kathy Zens retired from her job at the Currie State Bank in 2012. Zens is originally from Westbrook and her maiden name is Ennenga. Her sister Lori Lerohl of Marshall asked her if she wanted a job, and told her Harry Baulisch, former director, was retiring. She flatly said no, but agreed to be a volunteer. Eventually one thing lead to another and a short time later she found herself as director of Mary and Martha’s Pantry. Since then she has found enjoyment helping people and working with a great bunch of people.

    Zens reminded people, “the need for the Pantry is always there, not just in March.”

    To contact the pantry people can call 507-537-1416 or 1-800-658 2448 at Western Community Action. Donations of food or cash can be brought to Mary and Martha’s Pantry in Westbrook. Cash donations can be sent to Mary and Martha’s  Pantry, P.0. Box 71, Westbrook, MN 56183