Michelle Rageth has been the executive director of the Friends in Need food shelf in St. Paul Park for 16 years. As the only full-time employee, she relies on volunteers to help distribute fresh produce, dairy, meat, and other groceries as well as toiletries and information about social services throughout the year. For those interested in contributing, she notes that cash donations to food banks result in obtaining up to 10 times as much food as canned-food drives.
“When I started, we were serving about 3,000 people a year. Last year, we served more than 34,000. At one point we had 30 volunteers, and now we have more than 160. Northern Tier Energy donates our building and pays our utilities—we doubled the size of our space six or seven years ago.”
“There are more than 300 food shelves in Minnesota—enough that every single address in the state is covered. Seniors on a fixed income and those who are disabled are constant clients for us. And there are always the working poor, those who might not have enough education to advance at their jobs but who are working as hard as they can to try to support their families—but who need the extra help.”
“So many people who lost jobs in the recent recession never thought they would have to use a food shelf. They come in and say, ‘We’ve always donated to you, we certainly don’t want to have to be here.’ We reassure them that they aren’t alone, and we also lead them to resources at other agencies they might not know about. Once the middle-class families come in, they often leave their appointment in tears or hugging us—and when they’re back on their feet, they can turn around and help others.”
“It’s easy to paint people with a broad brush, but one of the things we have to be careful about is not judging. One of our favorite clients is a convicted felon. He got caught up in something 20-some years ago as a teenager and made a big mistake. He served his time and now is hard-working and so grateful for every single thing he is given. He’s so humble and hugs us every single time he’s here, because he wasn’t able to hug anyone for so many years.”
“We have a Thanksgiving program run by two ladies whose mother started it 20 years ago, and now their daughters and children are helping out to pass it along to the next generation. We serve around 500 families every year, with each getting a huge box with a frozen turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, Cool Whip, five pounds of potatoes, cranberry sauce—the whole fixings. The National Guard goes to the back door of Cub, who we purchase from, and they bring it to our distribution site.”
“You won’t see the need for helping others if you’re in a vacuum, if you’re sitting at home thinking about what you don’t have or that you don’t like how people are treating you.”
“I’m staying here, I’m not going anywhere—it’s just seeing the faces of people who know they’re going to be able to feed their family that night. And with our volunteers, who are the cream of the crop, you’re getting positive, friendly, giving people. Our volunteers can’t wait for their friends to retire so they can pull them into the fold and join them here.”