Numbers at River Falls food pantry tell only part of hunger’s story

Posted December 7, 2016

The River Falls Community Food Pantry serves 1,000 people per year in the River Falls School District. About 20 new households use the pantry each month.

According to data compiled by United Way, both St. Croix and Pierce counties had unemployment rates in 2014 below the state average of 5.3 percent, and as of April 2015, poverty rates of 7 and 11 percent, respectively.

Despite these numbers, Candice Anderson, executive director of the pantry, and Katie Bartko, president of the Pierce County Hunger Prevention Council Board of Directors, said that food insecurity affects more people in River Falls than the public sees.

In October of this year, 789 people used the food pantry, according to Bartko. She said two years ago there were more clients. In December 2014, 841 people used the pantry.

“It’s kind of a reflection of the economic status of the county,” she said.

The pantry stocks various items, including canned goods, cereal, produce, bread, meat, milk, eggs, butter and hygiene products. Each item category is limited for how much a person can take. The amount of food taken per customer is weighed and recorded in pounds. A family of two generally averages 65 pounds of food.

“We want to make sure they get out of here so they can… get at least five to seven days’ worth of good meals out of the pantry,” Anderson said.

She added that there is a still somewhat of a stigma with using the food pantry.

“Some people assume they’re lazy or this or that,” she said.

Most clients are single, or are young families with young children who just can’t make ends meet, Anderson said. A person may have to decide between putting gas in their car to get to work or being able to buy food.

Brittany Roberts, 23, is an employee at Family Fresh in River Falls. She said she has been coming to the food pantry on and off since she was in middle school when the pantry was still located at Ezekiel Lutheran Church.

Roberts receives food stamps but says it is not enough to get by living paycheck to paycheck. After paying bills and rent, there isn’t much left for food.

“I come here because the people here are friendly and they make it easy to shop,” Roberts said.

Anderson also noted that with tighter regulations on the federal food stamp program, some people may bring make much money to qualify for the program, but still not enough to pay for everything they need to and be able to buy food.

An 18-year-old woman who wished to remain anonymous has been coming to the food pantry for a few months.

She is an employee at the McDonald’s in Hudson, usually working 45 hours a week. She said she makes about $16,000 a year, which she said qualifies her to receive $16 in food stamps per month.

Recently, she was put in a cast for a stress fracture in her ankle from working.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to pay bills and stuff, right now especially because I’m going to be missing a whole paycheck because I can’t be on my feet for two weeks,” she said.

She and Roberts both said they don’t mind the stigma that comes from using the food pantry.

“I don’t care because personally I’ve been homeless in my lifetime and I’d rather ask for help and not starve and be hungry. This place here is really nice compared to the one I had back home,” the 18-year-old said.

She moved to River Falls from Kansas where she was in foster care since she was 12, and she plans to move back in about a month.

A person may come to the food panty for many different reasons.

“It seems like people have had to use us for six months or less, so it’s usually a shorter-term problem,” Anderson said.

Job loss or job hour cuts seem to be large reasons why people use the pantry on a short-term basis. Someone using the pantry long term may be on disability or Social Security and not have enough to get by and to purchase food.

A 55-year-old man who also wished to remain anonymous came to the food pantry on Thursday, Dec. 1, for the first time in three years.

He said he works part time as a website designer, and returned to the food pantry because multiple circumstances left him low on money.

“I was going to maybe come here a while ago but there’s like a social stigma, you know,” he said.

Clients can shop either once a month or twice a month, at their own choosing, but will get the same amount of food either way. A person who shops once a month can go home with four bags full of food and a person who shops twice can go home with two each time.

Persons using the pantry for the first time need to bring a photo ID, proof of residency, and proof of other household members. The River Falls pantry does not require proof of income. It allows clients to self-declare their earnings.

The Pierce County Hunger Prevention Council serves as a networking resource for the six food pantries in the county. Those who live on the outskirts of the school district may find it more convenient to use one of the other pantries in the county. The council allows the pantries to share surplus food with each other.

The pantry is also partnered with Second Harvest Heartland, based in Maplewood, Minnesota. This is another networking resource for the pantry that allows clients to receive food directly from the program and also from area retailers such as Walmart, Target and Kwik Trip.

Fifty percent of the food in the pantry is donated and the other 50 percent is purchased with donations or grant money.

The pantry, which is located at 222 North Main St. in River Falls, is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and some Saturdays. For hours, visit the pantry’s website,