It's easy to be lulled by the tidy suburban surroundings. But behind closed doors, many Dakota County families struggle to put food on the table.

In response to a growing need, Eagan & Lakeville Resource Centers -- Dakota County's largest nonprofit food shelf -- has launched its second annual holiday food drive. The goal of the Project Pantry: Holidays without Hunger giving campaign is to stock shelves during this critical time of year when resource-strapped families feel stretched even thinner.

"People are struggling. A lot of people have lost their jobs. A lot of people are struggling to put food on the table. It's all camouflaged by houses, nice cars and clean neighborhoods," said Mirla Conlon, an ELRC volunteer. "We don't see the poverty. We don't live in the slums, but people are hurting."

In 2011, the charity served 9,940 households, a 79 percent increase over 2010, said Nancy Wester, ELRC community relations manager.

"In the last couple of months, we've seen an increase in the number of new clients who have never used our services before," Wester said.

About half of those served by ELRC are children, she said.

For the holiday campaign, ELRC staff provides signs, giving-tree envelopes and other resources so churches, schools, community groups, businesses and even individuals can hold holiday food drives. ELRC then collects donations and distributes them.

"During this time of the year, many individuals, groups, churches and organizations look for a way to help those in need. We came up with the Project Pantry: Holidays without Hunger giving campaign as an easy to remember, easy to participate way for people to make a difference for hungry families locally," explained Lisa Horn, ELRC executive director.

In 2011, the charity distributed 679,343 pounds of food, nearly 70 percent of which was fresh or perishable.

St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan is holding a Project Pantry food and donation drive. Parishioners donate to the food shelf all year, but they dig a little deeper during the holidays, said Conlon, who works with the church's Charity & Justice and Latino Ministry.

Conlon, who also volunteers at ELRC, sees the dire need firsthand.

"It's a reality that there is poverty here in Eagan," Conlon said. "It is the reality that children are the ones most hurting in these situations. We are glad to be able to help."

Children, teachers and staff at Century Middle School in Lakeville collected food and donations for Project Pantry this fall.

"The kids see that everyone needs to eat. It's a way they can help out," said prevention specialist Judy Johnson, who cochairs the event. "Everybody can contribute. You can bring in a small item. You give what you can."

For more information, go to

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.