When Cora Duffy and Mallory Vener, both 14, joined the South St. Paul Mayor's Youth Taskforce, they didn't know it would make them super heroes — or more accurately, souper heroes.

The pair shivered in a set of canned soup costumes near Knowlan's Fresh Foods on March 21 as part of an event to promote the fifth annual South St. Paul food drive, which lasts until the end of the month. In keeping with this year's "Be an Everyday Hero" theme, the girls taped capes to their costumes and rallied passing cars.

"We are just running around waiving signs," Duffy said. "It's fun."

The event was one part of this year's two-week food drive, which aims to bring in at least 55,075 pounds of non-perishable food. Donations will go to the food shelf at local nonprofit Neighbor's Inc.

The food drive weight goal, chosen because 55075 is the city's ZIP Code, is ambitious compared to previous years. Last year, the citywide drive brought in about 47,000 pounds of food.

"Getting over 55,000 pounds of food is lot for a community of just 20,000 but we know that we can do it," said Deb Griffith, community affairs liaison at the City of South St. Paul.

Griffith's confidence stems from the number of groups participating in raising both food and monetary donations this year, including local volunteer student groups, schools and companies. Businesses around the city also have donation barrels, where residents can drop food until March 31.

It's also the first time the South St. Paul Jaycees joined in the city's food drive. For the past eight years the Jaycees held their own food drive every March, gathering between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of food annually.

This year, the collective March 21 event gathered more than 2,000 pounds of food in just four hours.

"This is the first year that we've had the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Cub Scouts, Youth Task Force, the Youth Ambassadors and the Jaycees come together instead of doing something separate," said Alicia Richter, president of the South St. Paul Jaycees. "It goes to show that when you come together you can make a bigger difference than just doing 3,000 pounds here or there."

Neighbors unite

March is an especially effective time to raise food, Richter said, largely thanks to Minnesota FoodShare's March campaign. Minnesota FoodShare, a program of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, challenges food shelves all over the state to raise food and cash donations during the month of March each year.

Participating food shelves win money from the FoodShare's incentive program, which is funded by corporate, church and individual donors. The more donations a food shelf receives in March, the more money they get from the incentive fund.

South St. Paul officials will announce the total donation amount for this year's food drive at the April 6 City Council meeting, where they'll also give out trophies to youth volunteers, Griffiths said.

"We like to make it a big thing," she said. "We don't even let the mayor know how much [food was collected]. We surprise her."

John Kemp is eagerly waiting to hear the final number. Kemp has been the CEO at Neighbor's Inc. for the past 12 years. Traditionally, donations slow as the weather gets warm, he said. Meanwhile, need increases.

"There's always a summer surge," he said. "Kids don't get the free or reduced breakfast or the free and reduced lunch in the summer because they aren't in school. Parents need to provide that … so our business always picks up in the summer."

While Neighbors Inc. uses the food drive push every March to help prepare for the summer, South St. Paul Mayor Beth Baumann said the drive is also a community-building event.

"It's something that virtually everyone can do," she said. "It just means that people are still wanting to help their neighbors … They appreciate that there are people who need our help and that is why they are stepping up."

Roger Rohrer, who has lived in the area since 1973, agreed with Baumann when he brought his bag of donations to a group of volunteers dressed as super heroes in the Knowlan's parking lot.

"There's more and more pressure and need for food for the people who don't have money to put food on the table for their family," he said. "These neighbors always step to the plate. They always seem to find a way to get people to give more and we are very pleased to participate."

Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.