A snippy comment at church sparked a Chaska couple's enduring effort to help fill the food shelves Up North.
After a four-hour drive from Chaska, Laverne and Babs Wheeler park their red minivan -- odometer nearing 229,000 miles -- in front of a pale-yellow brick building on Broadway Avenue. They grab a couple of shopping carts and begin unloading 900 pounds of Hamburger Helper, canned tuna, pasta, peanut butter, soup, squash, toilet paper, clothing, pots and pans.
"Wow, this is a lot of stuff -- you guys really worked hard this month," said Lavern Hogland, 77, the volunteer coordinator at the Quad City Food Shelf. "Well, we sure do appreciate this. How can we say 'Thank you' enough?"
The Wheelers shrug off the praise.
"We're all part of a team," Babs said, filling another cart.
Within a half-hour, they are on the road home, driving past the yellowing tamarack trees of late autumn. The blue shelves at Quad City have been restocked, helping to feed 317 families from the hard-hit Iron Range towns of Gilbert, Mountain Iron, Eveleth and Virginia. The number of families relying on the food shelf has jumped 67 percent in five years. More than 22,000 pounds of food goes out the door every month.
But who are these Wheelers? And what led a couple of suburban retirees in their mid-70s to drive Up North with a van full of food shelf items for 23 consecutive months?
Turns out, it all started with a sarcastic quip at church.
'I was a little snippy'
Babs, 75, plugs in an electric skillet, adds some canola oil and begins browning turkey fillets at their comfortable home in Chaska. Laverne, 76, slices cheese and places it on crackers for appetizers. The house is punctuated with antiques. The massive dining room table is set for 16. Last month, 46 friends (including eight first-timers) stopped over for one of their sumptuous meals, which the Wheelers serve up three days in a row each month.
A recent menu featured gazpacho soup, crescent rolls, pork roast with apple-chutney sauce, melon, rice and cookies. In exchange for the home cooking and camaraderie, guests are asked to bring food-shelf items or checks for that month's designated food shelf.
The whole operation began Nov. 27, 2007. Babs read a story in the newspaper under the headline: "Iron Range food shelves say cupboard is bare." The article quoted Hogland talking about how all the Iron Range unemployment had increased the demand at her food shelf.
Inspired, the Wheelers decided to throw a dinner party and asked folks to bring food-shelf items. That Sunday, the Wheelers headed to Colonial Church of Edina, where Babs sings in the choir. At a meeting after services, the discussion turned to the church's effort to collect food every March, November and December for needy people in the community.
"I was a little snippy and said: 'Well, gosh darn it, did you notice people eat the other nine months as well? Why aren't we doing something the other nine months?' " Babs said.
On her way out the door, someone asked if that is what she intended to do.
"Well, I didn't say we were going to do it, I was thinking the church or mankind in general," she said.
She and Laverne got to talking. Why not? Babs has loved entertaining since she ran a catering business years ago in Michigan and led European group-travel treks. They worried that people might think they were "holier than thou.
"But then we decided we didn't care," Babs said.
Every month since February 2008, the Wheelers have thrown their back-to-back-to-back dinner parties.
'Having dinner together'
One month, 22 people showed up. Another month, they served only one couple.
"It's just such an easy thing," said Laverne, a retired Dow Chemical salesman. "And it's such a good thing to get together when you're not at a church service or committee meeting. It's just friends having dinner together."
A series of medical problems in the last year -- including back surgery on a ruptured disc, a blood clot and an operation to remove skin cancer from his face -- barely slowed Laverne. He said that as long as people are willing to bring food or their checkbooks, the Wheelers will continue to host the dinners.
So far, they have collected more than 9,000 pounds of food and nearly $15,000 for food shelves in the Minnesota towns of Cass Lake, Parkers Prairie, Emily, Sandstone, Hill City, Longville, Braham, Nisswa, Hill City, Remer, Jacobson and New York Mills.
"We know there are lots of needs in the Twin Cities, too, but there are more jobs and money if people get off their duffs," Babs said. "Up North, people are hurting even more, so that's where we go."
At a recent lunch for 14, Babs infused into her menu some items she was given the month before at the Cass Lake food shelf. She brewed "swamp tea" collected by kids on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and served wild rice and fry bread. She has prepared Czech and Finnish dishes when heading to places settled by immigrants from those lands.
Laverne says a quick prayer before every meal:
"Let's just pause for a moment to say we appreciate everything we have and we appreciate these people and you must be very proud, Lord, and happy to see what this group is doing. Bless these foods they've brought..."
Eat, then work
After one of their recent meals, the diners set up an assembly line and divvied up a 50-pound sack of rice into one-pound Baggies for the single people who used the food shelf in Gilbert.
As the dishes were cleared and the rice bagged, Babs thought about the world's problems and how their little dinner parties were an antidote for all the dread.
"There are the wars that you don't feel you can do much about," she said. "Child abuse, spousal abuse, hunger, sex offenders. It just about overwhelms you. But if you can find something to do, it's cathartic."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767