Monthly food distribution helps people make ends meet

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
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Volunteers wait in position for the nearly 400 people who will come through the line to pick out the groceries made available to them through Ruby’s Pantry. Pictured at Bethel Lutheran Church in Ramey are some of the 30 volunteers (from left): Mike Hasselstrom, Bob Dubbin, Linda Keske, Mike Bingman, Betty Dropps, Stephanie Ziwicki, Cliff and Sheri Weitgenant and Sue Virnig.

They travel to Ramey from Rice, Royalton, St. Cloud, Foley, Princeton, Elk River, Becker, Big Lake, Little Falls, Cushing, Randall, Milaca and more. They come carrying laundry baskets, tubs and coolers. And for good reason: for $15 they can fill those containers with groceries brought to the Bethany Lutheran Church by the semi-load.

Since June 2011, these food distributions have become a monthly event, but it took more than two years for that to happen.

Sue Virnig lives just outside Ramey and works on a dairy farm. She said her friend, Lolly Talberg, introduced her to the food distribution in Ogilvie, knowing how tough it can be to feed a large family. There are seven in Virnig’s family.

But Virnig didn’t just pick up food items for herself; she picked up baskets of items for others, until her car plain old couldn’t handle it any longer.

For more than two years, she worked to bring the food distribution closer to home and to those she was helping.

Virnig said Ruby’s Pantry, the nonprofit organization that supplies the food donations that come from various companies, has a waiting list. It simply took that long for the Ramey location to make it to the top of the list.

The mission of Ruby’s Pantry is, “To procure and distribute corporate surplus food and goods to help fight poverty, hunger and disease in rural communities in the United States for those with low resources and in crisis through churches, food shelves and other local civic organizations.”

Ruby’s Pantry operates out of more than 40 locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The food donated by various companies comes on a semi-truck to the little church the second Wednesday of each month. The food is not outdated, but some canned goods may not have labels.

Between 30 – 50 volunteers work to unload the truck, setting items up on two lines of tables at the Bethany Lutheran Church.

The work begins about 1 p.m. and the food is ready for pickup between 4:30 p.m. – 5 p.m. Until 6:30 p.m., volunteers help distribute the food to those who come through the lines. Cleanup takes until about 7:30 p.m.

Last Wednesday, 430 people came through the line, up nearly 300 since the first distribution, when 138 people came.

Food items vary from month to month, said Virnig. Some of the items available include frozen chicken or other meats, canned vegetables, potatoes, onions, frozen French fries, bottled water, milk, sour cream and cottage cheese, refrigerated biscuits and more. It depends upon what is donated and shipped on the truck.

Virnig doesn’t know what is coming, but said they seldom run out. During the last distribution the frozen chicken ran out “at about 400,” she said.

Anything left over is picked up by the Morrison County Food Shelf and the Foley Food Shelf. A group home picks up leftover items as well.

Of the $15 per person collected, the group keeps 20 percent which is put into a benevolence fund used to continue to help others.

“We had one lady who had a house fire and we gave her $200. Another person lost their spouse, and we gave them $50,” said Virnig. “It depends on the issue.” The donations stay close to home, since the funds are meant to be used in the local community.

Last year, the group used some funds to purchase school supplies for area kids, and bought toys for 200 kids during the Christmas season.

“So we’re helping not just the people that can pay their $15 for food,” said Virnig. “There’s the ones we can give the money to too.”

“Helping out people that need it is kind of fun,” said Virnig. “They don’t know they are going to get anything.”

Virnig said the reward comes in the form of thank you letters, hugs and grateful smiles. “It’s nice seeing their happy faces,” she said. “One lady cried, because she actually had enough bread for the month for her kids.”

Virnig’s hope for the program is, “That we can feed as many people as possible and help out as many people as we can,” she said.

Virnig said everyone is welcome to come to the food distribution. “We don’t ask for income, it’s not income-based,” she said. There is no need to belong to the Bethany Lutheran Church, either.  “Everyone is welcome,” said Virnig.

She still helps at the Ogilvie distribution, held the last Saturday of every month.

For more information, Virnig said people can call her parents, Roger and Kathy Kranz, at (320) 355-2666.