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Food shelves in Scott and Carver County prepare for the holiday season

With fall here and winter approaching, food shelves in Scott and Carver County are preparing for what they anticipate will be a busy end of the year.

Food insecurity has heavily impacted Minnesota over the past decade, and this dilemma has worsened since the start of the pandemic.

Minnesotans made over 3.8 million visits to food shelves last year — a new record high for the state, according to 2020 statistics from Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a nonprofit organization centered on combating food insecurity in Minnesota.


Photo courtesy of Tom Redman 

Bountiful Basket volunteers debone turkeys ahead of St. John’s Lutheran Church’s annual Thanksgiving meal.

Food shelves in Scott and Carver counties are finding creative ways to serve the community as the holiday season nears and 2021 reaches a close.

In November, the Jordan Area Food Shelf provides turkeys, potatoes and a bag filled with other traditional Thanksgiving dinner sides. This Thanksgiving, the Jordan Area Food Shelf is also hosting its third annual Turkey Trot event, where participants run or walk a three-mile trail and raise money for the food shelf.

Next month, the food shelf will stock up on hams and other typical Christmas and winter holiday fixings for people to prepare meals.

As the weather gets colder, the food shelf also donates winter coats and blankets to its visitors in need. It also is looking into the ability to give Christmas presents to kids this year.

Tanya Velishek, executive director of Jordan Area Food Shelf, said she tries to be creative in providing to the community around the holidays.

“We do multiple different things during the holiday season … [because] it’s not just about feeding the community,” Velishek said. “It’s also giving them something to look forward to in the spirit of the holidays.”

Bountiful Basket Food Shelf in Chaska serves eastern Carver County by preparing holiday meals for families and using its mobile food programs to the fullest extent. Much of the food preparation and organizing is done by volunteers.

This year, the food shelf is working with Love INC and local churches to deliver 250 turkeys and supplemental holiday food bags to families in need. Volunteers also help out at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Chaska every year to debone turkeys ahead of the church’s annual Thanksgiving meal.

The food shelf is working with nonprofit organization Humanity Alliance this year, where volunteers prepare, cook and deliver meals to families primarily in Carver County. In this partnership, 200 additional turkeys and food bags will be prepared for families.

Bountiful Basket also partners toward the end of the year with Fare for All, a low-cost, grocery purchasing program. $15 vouchers will be provided to visitors to purchase food at Fare for All.

Providing assistance to those in need is something Bountiful Basket Board Chairman Tom Redman said can alleviate worries for families around the holidays and year-round.

“If we can provide [families] with healthy food, they can use their resources for other things, whether that be medical, transportation or housing,” Redman said. “We can take a lot of that worry away from families.”

A Time of Giving

Photo courtesy of CAP Agency 

A volunteer stocks produce at the CAP Agency’s food shelf.

Like Jordan Area Food Shelf and Bountiful Basket, the CAP Agency’s food shelf also puts holiday baskets together around the end of the year.

Jackie Lara, CAP Agency’s director of nutrition and community services, said the Scott County community often donates holiday-themed foods in fall and winter. The food shelf receives most of its turkey and ham donations around this time, and many people donate holiday sides like stuffing and potatoes.

“It’s through that community support, those donations and the generosity out there that really makes these things happen,” Lara said.

According to Lara, the CAP Agency sees an increase in families served beginning in September and even more heightened numbers in November and December.

This finding aligns with data compiled last year by Hunger Solutions Minnesota. The organization’s findings show an increase among food shelf visits after September, with numbers generally reaching a high for the year in the last three months.

According to Hunger Solutions Minnesota Executive Director Colleen Moriarty, food shelf numbers often rise at the end of the year as transportation becomes more difficult and access to farmers markets and personal gardens disappears.

While visitor numbers increase around this time of year, all three food shelves noted a donation numbers surge as well.

A majority of food provided by the CAP Agency is either purchased or donated through local food banks, according to Lara. She said more food drives and donations happen around this time from families, schools and faith-based organizations.

“It’s the time of giving, and people want to help out and give back,” Lara said.

Redman and Velishek also see increased food and monetary donations at their respective food shelves.

Moriarty believes these acts of generosity are common in Minnesota during this time of year.

“We live in incredibly generous communities in the state of Minnesota, and people are very generous in the holidays to food shelves,” Moriarty said.

Ahead of Hunger Solutions Minnesota’s 2021 data release, Moriarty said this year’s overall visit numbers are getting back to pre-pandemic levels from 2019. She largely attributes this drop to the implementation of government programs and assistance over the past year, like free and reduced school meals.

While decreased visitation numbers are encouraging, Hunger Solutions Minnesota’s findings still show Minnesotans making millions of food shelf visits annually.

Moving forward, the three food shelves are prepared to continue helping Scott and Carver County residents for the rest of the year and beyond.

“In a pandemic, time of need, jobless or whatever, sometimes people just need that extra hand to get them to the next week,” Velishek said. “I find it really important to be able to help meet those needs.”

Southwest Metro veteran services aim to meet veterans needs

County veteran services offices provide a wide variety of services and benefits. Whether it is disability compensation, pension, dental health assistance or even door-to-door transportation for medical appointments.

When veterans contact the office looking for a service it doesn’t provide, staff members work to connect them with other community organizations, nonprofits or other groups, said Scott County Veterans Service Director Jerry Brua.

“If we’re not able to help them and we know somebody that potentially might be able to, we certainly refer them,” Brua said.

The veterans service office is here to assist veterans, Brua said. While it is uncommon, veterans occasionally aren’t aware of the benefits and services that are available to them. When a veteran provides the office with a DD214, the document issued upon a service member’s retirement, separation or discharge from active duty, staff members can go from there and see what benefits they are entitled to.

A misconception that Brua has noticed is that people think that “a veteran is a veteran.” Everyone’s situation is unique, Brua said. Even when people serve at the same time, it doesn’t mean they had the same experience or tour of duty, he added.

“Everybody’s unique just because your buddy is receiving benefits, you may not be entitled to those benefits, or vice versa. Just because your buddy was denied, doesn’t mean that you’re not eligible,” Brua said.

Joshua Simer of Chaska echoed Brua’s point. Simer is a colonel in the Minnesota Army National Guard and works full-time for a fiber optics manufacturer. Although veterans are a distinct group who tends to build connection with each other, they are not all the same, he said.

“We’re not a monolith,” Simer said.

Simer started his military service in ROTC at Harvard University in 1993 and graduated in 1997. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry and served seven years on active duty, which included deployment to the Middle East and two and a half years in South Korea.

In 2004, Simer transitioned from active duty to the Minnesota National Guard and has served ever since. That included two more deployments to the Middle East and command of a tank and mechanized infantry battalion. His current assignment is as garrison commander at Camp Ripley, Minnesota.

Simer occasionally goes to the Carver County Veteran Services Office when he needs certain documents, verification of veteran status or advice about another organization to contact for assistance. He has always been pleased with the service and the veteran service officer is active, friendly and engaged, he said.

Simer has also utilized several other veteran benefits, such as assistance with home loans, help with job searches and assistance with transferring his GI Bill benefits to his children.

With so many different organizations offering resources to veterans, whether they be governmental, a nonprofit or community based, it can be baffling to figure out where to go to get assistance for a specific need, Simer said. That’s where the Carver County Veteran Services Office comes in to help, he added.

That overwhelming feeling is a real thing, said Carver County Veteran Services Officer Dan Tengwall. Another obstacle the office sees is that some veterans don’t think they deserve the benefits.

Tengwall emphasized that a great way for veterans to help not only themselves, but also others, is to go through the process of accessing benefits. We want people in the community to become more familiar with the office and carry out our message, he said. The best way for a veteran to help someone is to understand the process themselves and become a great resource, he added.

“Veterans have a common value of helping each other … We are trained to look left and look right and help our battle buddies or our shipmates or our fellow Marines or airmen,” Tengwall said. “When we take the uniform off, we don’t lose that want to help others.”

There is a common bond of understanding, selfless service and wanting to help that we share, he added.

The Carver County Veteran Services Office offers many similar services that the Scott County office does. The office encourages veterans to begin the process soon after they are discharged. It’s more difficult to have conversations about injuries or health conditions when they are 50 or 60 years old, Tengwall said.

“Maybe they were a pilot or a mechanic for aircraft and they had some hearing loss, maybe they were in the Navy and they … had some kind of musculoskeletal injury,” Tengwall said. “We want to capture that information. The best time to do that is when they discharge.”

Not only does the office have the ability to refer veterans to other organizations, it also partners with many groups. Engagement with local groups is a high priority for our office, Tengwall said. Just a few of these organizations include local VFW American Legion posts, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon and the Veterans Council.

People sometimes assume veteran services offices have a magical list of everyone who’s served, Tengwall said, adding they only get that information when veterans give it to them. It’s important for veterans to connect with the office so that when something is needed, we can react quicker and more effectively, he said.

Mental health is an important matter for the veteran community as well as the general public. Tengwall emphasized that addressing mental health is a strength, not a weakness. It’s doing the work and taking care of yourself, he said. He spoke for himself about how the VA health care system has helped his own mental health. Staff members listen and try to help veterans sort things out, whether they have immediate needs or long-term care.