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Outreach Food Shelf in Alexandria celebrates 40 years

A 40-year celebration is planned for Wednesday, June 29.

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Outreach Food Shelf volunteer Lana Leedahl arranges cans on a shelf.
Echo Press file photo
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ALEXANDRIA — Forty years ago, a local pastor recognized a need for a food shelf in the Alexandria lakes area.

Jeff Bullock of Emmanuel Episcopal Church started what is now known as the Outreach Food Shelf in the attic of the Alexandria church, according to current food shelf director, Bernice Wimmer.

A parish led by Mary and Tom Sinning, along with several other couples, quickly spread the message about the new food shelf to other area churches and the community.

“The community responded by donating food and money to help, and the food shelf quickly outgrew its space in the attic of the church and expanded to include the basement of the church,” said Wimmer.

Now, 40 years later, the Outreach Food Shelf sits in its own space at 1205 Lake Street in Alexandria. And it will be hosting a 40-year celebration on Wednesday, June 29, from 4:30 to 7 p.m.

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The event, aimed to honor its "Hunger Heroes,” will include food, fun, music and history. Mark Anthony from Voice of Alexandria will be providing music as he does impersonations of Elvis and Neil Diamond, and Sandy Susag, avid arts enthusiast and Alexandria School Board member, is set to also perform as she will be doing an impersonation of Dolly Parton.

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Volunteer staff at the Outreach Food Shelf ensure the shelves always have a selection for visitors.
Echo Press file photo

Tours of the food shelf – from its beginnings at the church to its current location – will be provided by Tom Sinning.

“This event is a chance to show appreciation to our ‘Hunger Heroes’ who have contributed food, money and their time and talent, to feed the hungry in our community and for making the Outreach Food Shelf what it is today,” said Wimmer.

A look back

Here is a look back at a brief timeline of how the food shelf began to where it is at today:

  • 1982 – The Emmanuel Episcopal Church opened its doors to people in need of food.
  • 1984 – The demand was so great that the church could no longer house the food shelf. With donations and then volunteers from the Alexandria Technical and Community College, a new 24-foot by 24-foot building was built. 
  • 1995 – Now serving more than 2,000 families, the food shelf needed to expand and a 24-foot by 30-foot addition was built. 
  • 2002 – The number of families being served more than tripled. The food shelf helped 6,200 families with more than 40% being children. With that, a 24-foot by 24-foot addition was once again added, along with that, water and sewer were added on. 
  • 2005 – The Outreach Food Shelf was granted 501c3 status. At that time, it went from being known as the Food Shelf to the Outreach Food Shelf. 
  • 2007 – As the food shelf needs continued to grow, a 24-foot by 36-foot garage was built for storage. 
  • 2017 – An expansion is once again needed as numbers just keep growing. This time, a 996-square foot addition was built. 
  • Past directors – Wally Bloom and Vicki Bump . Mary Sinning was the president of the board of directors for many years. 

40 years later

Wimmer said that 40 years after the mission of “no one in Douglas County goes hungry,” was initiated, the food shelf continues to provide food for people in the lakes area.

“This is possible and has been possible because of the support we receive from the community,” she said.

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Bernice Wimmer is the executive director of the Douglas County Outreach Food Shelf. She took over for Vicki Bump, who retired.
Echo Press file photo

In 2021, Wimmer said volunteers worked more than 17,000 hours, local grocery stores donated more than 488,000 pounds of food and community members collected and donated more than 134,600 pounds of food.

In January of 2022, the Outreach Food Shelf served 283 families and keeps increasing, Wimmer said, noting that in May of this year, the food shelf served 342 families.

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Looking ahead

As the Outreach Food Shelf looks to the future, Wimmer said she, along with the board of directors, will be doing some strategic planning this coming September. Some of the items they will be looking at, she said, include possible online shopping for clients, a mobile pantry for the parking lot and how they can get easier access for their clients as many of them have transportation issues.

“The community has been awesome,” said Wimmer. “Our greatest needs have changed since the beginning of the year. With supply chain issues, food is not only more expensive but hard to get.”

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The expansion in 2017 provided the Outreach Food Shelf more floor space in the shopping area.
Echo Press file photo

She provided an example in pasta noodles. In a typical week, Wimmer said the food shelf goes through between 80 and 90 pounds of pasta and that many times in the last month, there hasn’t been any spaghetti noodles in the stores. That is how things have changed, she said.

If people are interested in donating to the Outreach Food Shelf, Wimmer provided guidelines for what they need most. She said non-perishable items in unbreakable containers that are not expired, such as soups, spaghetti sauces, pasta noodles, Hamburger Helper-style foods, rice, canned meat, vegetables and fruit, along with peanut butter, oil, flour and sugar.

“A good guideline is the things you like to keep on hand,” she said, adding that a great idea for people is when they are out shopping, just grab an extra item or two for the hungry and drop it off at the food shelf.

Celeste Edenloff is the special projects lead and a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press. She has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in 2016 to once again report on the community she calls home.
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