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Students fill gaps at Mobile Food Pantry program

The bad news just keeps coming: War in Ukraine, mass shooting, gas prices and inflation. But in the midst of the cacophony of the negative, we can find reasons to hope for a better future. One of the promising signs appeared in the form of student council members from Cloquet Middle School volunteering at the Mobile Food Pantry program distribution in Cloquet. This program is one of five in the area developed as an outreach service by Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank.

Executive director Shaye Moris said Second Harvest saw a need in Carlton County for the Mobile Food Pantry program in 2018. "We saw there's a low amount of food resources in a county but a high level of need, and it continues to increase. We have seen since we started a 43-percent increase in households and a 36-percent increase in people served."

The distribution of all this food requires many volunteers each month.

Jamie Jazdzewski, CMS seventh- and eight-grade counselor and student council advisor, said she heard about the mobile food bank from her church (Our Savior's Lutheran), which helps out. "I thought this might be a good opportunity for our kids here at school to serve."

The group tries to send some of its members to participate in the mobile food distribution several times per school year. "We always look for just some different opportunities in our community where we can help out," Jazdzewski said.

The student council consists of fifth- through eighth-grade students. Since the council has 32 members, a limited number of them are chosen to participate each time. The students partner with adult volunteers to load the boxes of non-perishable goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products in the vehicles.

Reflecting on his time on the line, Patrick Lussier said, "I enjoyed working with the older people from our community that were also there helping. More students should take that opportunity."

Andrew Haukebo, the volunteer and development coordinator at Second Harvest, contacts a core group of 25-30 community members each month. Some of the volunteers manage registration as people arrive and others work on traffic management and unloading and distributing the food. Haukebo reported that the Mobile Food Pantry program has consistently served more than 300 households on average in the last few months.

"Andrew is very good at working with the regulars. And then we will use press releases or social media or he'll just call people he knows in the community," Moris said. She added that some organizations, such as the CMS student council and Disabled American Veterans, reach out to volunteer. At other times, the food bank will seek out businesses to get help.

"Upper Lakes has been a really strong supporter over the years. Wilderness Hockey has been coming out. Those two are the tried and true groups that will either reach out, or if we are in a bind, we can call them and find out if they can help," Moris said.

No proof of income is required to qualify for assistance, but the program asks that people follow certain guidelines. Senior citizens and those on fixed incomes are finding it more difficult to manage their resources with the increase in food costs. Seniors who qualify for the Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors (NAPS) can also pick up their boxes of prepackaged products at the distribution.

"What's interesting about this program, rather than the brick-and-mortar food shelf, is that we find more seniors will come out to our mobile pantry distribution. Seniors might like the anonymity, and they also might like the convenience of the drive-through distribution. We see so many more seniors coming into this program than the food shelf," Moris said.

In May, the energy and enthusiasm of the student council students perked up the regular volunteers. The kids liked it too.

"It is a cool experience because I get to help others who need food. I like that it's an experience not everyone gets to do," said Lillian DeWitt. Alexis Fagre agreed.

"I like to help people who need it," Fagre said. "It is nice knowing people in our community are willing to help."

Many of the volunteers will agree with fifth-grader Azalyn Lust, who said: "Don't stop when you're tired, stop when you are done."

The Mobile Food Pantry program depends on volunteers to help our neighbors. It appears that the next generation of volunteers is willing to step up and keep the community fed.

The distribution takes place 10:30-11:30 a.m. the third Thursday of the month at Our Savior's Lutheran Church parking lot in Cloquet. The next distribution is set for July 21.

The Cloquet Salvation Army food shelf is open Mondays from 4:30-6 p.m. and Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at 316 Carlton Avenue.

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