The festive train, replete with entertainers, is arriving again in Cottage Grove and Hastings to help raise money.
Think of it as hunger roaring down the track.
The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will arrive in Hastings and Cottage Grove on Friday to raise money for food shelves that now are serving record numbers of hungry residents in south Washington County and eastern Dakota County.
"Our numbers are huge," said Michelle Rageth, director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf that serves residents of Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park and Grey Cloud Island. "We have people who had 30-year careers who are delivering pizza. It's disheartening to see so many people hit by this economic downturn."
Not long ago Friends in Need served as many as 50 families a week, but that number has jumped to 120, Rageth said. Friends in Need, which operates in a warehouse donated by Marathon Oil Corp., benefits from the work of Mary Slusser and her army of fundraisers.
"It's just amazing what businesses are doing to contribute," said Slusser, who coordinates the community effort. By Dec. 3, she said, the volunteer fundraisers already had reached their goal of $30,000, which is the same as last year's goal. But like last year, thousands of dollars more will be raised by the time the train pulls away from Cottage Grove, she said.
The colorful train, festooned with lights and featuring entertainment on a boxcar, has helped collect 1.6 million pounds of food and raised nearly $3 million for North American food banks since it started rolling in 1999. Last year the Cottage Grove stop raised about $38,000 in cash and more than 10,000 pounds of food for Friends in Need.
This will be the sixth year that the train has stopped at Cottage Grove. For at least four of those years, Cottage Grove ranked first in money and food donated among dozens of stops in the United States and Canada.
"We do have bragging rights for the most people in attendance," Slusser said. Last year, 8,000 people came to see the train.
In Hastings, money and food collected from the holiday train event benefit the food shelf at Hastings Family Service. "It's a fabulous holiday tradition in our community," said Chris Koop, the agency's director. "Kids love it because the train is amazing."
Last year the event collected 3,550 pounds of food and $2,500 in Hastings. Although the donations are smaller than those in Cottage Grove, Koop said, other fundraising events in Hastings in December generate significant donations for the food shelf. She said a man wrote a check for a $3,000 donation at her agency recently.
"It's an amazing thing to witness," said Koop, who said demand for the food shelf has grown by 24 percent since last year.
In Cottage Grove, people attending the event are encouraged to donate money rather than food, Slusser said. Friends in Need uses the money to buy food in volume from Second Harvest, a regional food bank.
"While we never turn away food donations, the money goes so much further," Rageth said.
The economic downturn hasn't slowed the outpouring of support but instead accelerated it, Rageth said.
"I have to turn away volunteers," she said. "There are so many people in our community who are wanting to give their time. The community is just so amazing." Friends in Need, which takes clients by appointment, is open Tuesdays and, when necessary, Tuesday evenings.
Slusser said Friends in Need is addressing other demands as well.
"The food shelf is doing so much more than just providing food for families," she said. "They're helping them out in emergency situations."
Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554