The newly formed St. Croix Valley Food Bank is opening a warehouse in Hudson to meet the rising need for food assistance in western Wisconsin.

The food bank unveiled a 22,000-square-foot warehouse Wednesday that it is leasing to store and distribute food to 37 food shelves, school programs and other groups in St. Croix, Pierce, Polk and Burnett counties.

"We want to make sure no one in western Wisconsin goes hungry," said Ann Searles, the food bank's executive director.

United Way St. Croix Valley started the food bank last October as an independent nonprofit that could broaden its reach. United Way has been distributing food to Wisconsinites since 2007 but saw that demand was outpacing its program, which operated out of a small warehouse with two cargo vans.

Since then, the St. Croix Valley Food Bank has hired five employees, purchased two delivery trucks and found a larger warehouse to rent. It's now filled with rows of empty shelves waiting to be stocked.

"We're ready to launch. All we need at this point is more food," Searles said.

The food bank has signed a contract with Second Harvest Heartland to buy food from the Twin Cities food bank, the largest in Minnesota and part of the national Feeding America system.

Leaders of both organizations signed off last week on the agreement at a symbolic spot atop the St. Croix Crossing bridge, which spans the St. Croix between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

With Second Harvest's help, the St. Croix Valley Food Bank hopes to distribute 3 million meals in western Wisconsin this year, triple the previous number, then double it next year to 6 million meals.

Western Wisconsin counties are under served, Searles said, noting that some towns lack a grocery or food shelf. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, the United Way's food bank launched a mobile pantry to deliver food directly to seniors and families in need.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have seen a surge in the number of people in need during the pandemic. More people visited food shelves last year in Minnesota than in any year on record.

Some food shelves in rural counties saw a surprising dip in the number of visitors during the pandemic, but experts say that likely was due to rural residents obtaining help in other ways, such as pop-up food sites, emergency food boxes, extra food stamps or federal stimulus checks.

In Wisconsin, the number of people on food stamps rose 22% from March to December last year. Rural counties saw the largest increases in the rates of people applying for food stamps, according to the Hunger Relief Federation of Wisconsin.

At the Grantsburg Food Shelf in Wisconsin, food shelf manager Dave Doskey said fewer people showed up at the height of the pandemic thanks to the extra federal aid.

Now, he said, the number of people visiting his food shelf is increasing.

The St. Croix Valley Food Bank, Doskey said, will improve access to food for his food shelf, which serves about 28 families a week. "The need is growing by the week," he said.

Searles said she's expecting the ripple effects of the pandemic to last long after the virus wanes.

"It's so difficult to reach those rural areas," she said, adding that she hopes Twin Cities residents who vacation at lake homes in Wisconsin will volunteer or support the food bank. "You don't realize the level of poverty in the surrounding areas."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141