By the time Sue McKee gets her monthly disability check and pays her bills, including the rent for her low-income apartment in Mound, she has about $30 or $40 left.
“I normally live for some of the last two weeks of the month with nothing — no money,” said McKee, 60, who suffers from multiple health problems including chronic pain.
McKee can no longer drive, but fortunately she lives next to the Westonka Food Shelf. Although the former bartender and cashier would rather not have to visit a food shelf — “It can make you feel like you’re worthless, like you’re a beggar, kind of” — she doesn’t feel that way at Westonka.
“This is a very warm, welcoming place,” McKee said while visiting on a recent morning. “It’s not looking down on me because I can’t afford to go to the grocery store.”
Westonka’s workers, all volunteers, make a priority of helping visitors feel every bit as welcome as shoppers in a supermarket. Probably more so.
“We want to make it as comfortable as possible, just like it’s a grocery store,” said Shelly Sir, Westonka’s director and a volunteer herself.
The atmosphere is so friendly, “a lot of people just want to come in and talk,” Sir said. The volunteers get to know regulars so well they know when they see them what kind of mood they’re in, said Assistant Director Heidi Schmidt. “You can tell if they’re having an off day and they need more support.”
One of the first
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Westonka Food Shelf was founded by several churches in the Mound area in 1969, long before most people had even heard of food shelves. It may be the oldest food shelf in Minnesota and is certainly among the oldest in the country. St. Mary’s Food Bank, said to be the first of its kind in the world, opened in Phoenix just two years earlier.
Westonka is set up to resemble a small but ordinary grocery store. Visitors roam through bright aisles neatly stocked with frozen meats, dairy products, canned and boxed goods, seasonings, toothpaste and soap, pet food. One volunteer creates a healthy recipe every month, gathers all the ingredients and packages them with a printout of the recipe in ready-to-go bags. If a family is celebrating a birthday, they can pick up a bakery-made and decorated birthday cake.
Food distribution is based on household size. Under the guidelines, a family of three to four can get 12 frozen meats, 10 soups, 12 cans of vegetables and so on. But Sir believes in flexibility. If a family runs out of food before their month is up, “they’re going to get food,” she said.
“We’re not the food police. The only time I’ve ever said no is when they’ve got, like, 12 bags of cookies,” Sir said. “Very few people ever take more than they need. … They don’t want to take something somebody else can use.”
In addition to monthly visits, people can stop by weekly to collect fresh produce and other perishables, arranged in baskets in what Sir calls “the lobby” at the front of the store.
“People are always waiting outside when we open because they love the stuff we get,” she said.
Today, Westonka Food Shelf shares with a thrift store a building provided by Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church. Several years ago, said the Rev. Tony O’Neill, the previous space the food shelf had occupied since its inception “was falling to pieces and getting dangerous,” so it needed a new location. Within six months, community members donated $800,000.
O’Neill is proud of the new space, maintained by the church. “We wanted people who come in here to think they’re worth a very nice building.”
Hunger amid affluence
Those who perceive the Twin Cities’ western suburbs as a land of universal affluence might be surprised to find there’s a need for a food shelf on the western side of Lake Minnetonka.
“Hunger doesn’t look the way people think hunger would look like,” especially in the suburbs, said Lena Pransky of Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank that collects donated food by the truckload and distributes it to food shelves throughout southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
In fact, the so-called Westonka area is socioeconomically diverse, with residents both wealthy and poor. “There’s real poverty out here; there’s low-income housing next door and up the street,” O’Neill said.
Some patrons might be experiencing temporary hard times, Pransky said. An unexpected car repair, health problem or layoff can leave a formerly comfortable household in need of help. In fact, food shelves were originally intended to fill such acute, one-time needs, said Nora Gordon, who researches food shelves in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.
But now food shelves “are filling a chronic gap, for long periods of time,” Gordon said. Many people rely on food shelves for more than half of their overall food, she said. Which is why they’re striving to collect healthy foods rather than only the inexpensive packaged foods — mac and cheese, skillet dinners, ramen — that used to be food shelves’ primary offering.
“Healthier foods are the most expensive foods in a grocery store,” Gordon said. Donations of whole grains, canned and dried produce, whole-grain cereals, canned tuna, peanut butter and other healthy products are “a great opportunity to influence health and the overall health of a community.”
Meanwhile, the need is growing. In its early years, Westonka handed out about 10,000 pounds of food a month. So far this year, it has given out nearly 60,000 pounds monthly, up about 8,000 a month from 2018. The shelf served 709 families last year; so far this year it has already served more than 1,000.
Support from the community has helped Westonka keep up with the need, Sir said. In addition to distributions from Second Harvest, Westonka collects donations of food and money from community members, local grocery stores and other retailers, and Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, a working farm that is part of the Three Rivers Park District. Because the food shelf is entirely run by about 90 volunteers, every donated dollar goes to food, Sir said.
“Westonka is incredibly rooted in the community,” Pransky said.
While families in need are grateful for the existence of Westonka, the sentiment flows in both directions.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m so grateful that I have been here,” said Schmidt, the assistant director.
“It kind of feeds your soul when you’re here,” Sir said. “It’s not just a food shelf, it’s an extended family.”