Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, March 6, 2000

Mareitta Neumann takes pride in helping others at food shelf

By Luis Puga

Marietta Neumann, coordinator for the McLeod Emergency Food Shelf, smiles and laughs at the can she is holding.

The label reads, "Slug Chowder," and as she rolls it back in forth in her hand, some ominous sounds emanate from the mock food product.

The can, a gift, is a take on some of the items the food shelf receives.

Neumann can rattle off a list of items like green cherries at Christmas, cappacino mix, and cajun injectable marinade (she doesn't know what it is either). These items usually end up on the freebie shelf for anyone to take.

This is not to say that Neumann doesn't appreciate the donors to the food shelf, but she often gets her fill of pumpkin pie filling after Thanksgiving, and had just received a bulk of candy hearts after Valentines Day. Maybe the kids will like them.

With this sense of humor about her work comes from her dedication to the food shelf.

In 1983, after raising 10 kids, tending to the duties of a farm wife, and caring for sick relatives; Neumann got her first experience with the food shelf and was asked to be on the board the following year.

By 1989, the food shelf was going through a financial crisis and had to let its coordinator go. Neumann, who had filled in when needed, took the position at 20 hours a week and has been there since.

The position, although paid, is practically a volunteer role. And the demands are rigorous, more than just arranging for pick-up of food drives.

Neumann must stock the shelves, service clients, sort the donations, make constant appeals to the community, churches, and organizations, and keep a detailed record of use of the shelf. She must track how many pounds of food are used, keep demographic information on individual and household usage, and coordinate between two sites: a new Glencoe office, and the church basement in Hutchinson.

What keeps her motivated is the constant need for the food shelf's services. Even as the shelves are stocked right now, she knows they will empty soon.

The need comes from all over the county and even hits close to home. Last year, Winsted had 53 persons who availed themselves of the shelf; Lester Prairie 48.

Neumann states that usage has gone down. In 1999, the numbers went down 130 households from the previous years. But she is emphatic that practically anyone can be put in a situation where they might need the food shelf's services.

According to her information, more than 90 percent of people in the county can be considered to be two paychecks away from needing help. Scenarios can range from getting laid off, to having to pay for an expensive car repairm to expenses due to children starting school, to an illness that requires income to go to health care costs.

All of these scenarios can put individuals in a position where they have to decide between paying a bill and paying for food. The result is sometimes a tearful mother coming to Neumann for help because the mother can't pay for extra-curricular school activities and keep the fridge stocked.

Unfortunately, Neumann points out there is a strong stigma to this need. Some people are resistant to give or volunteer because they regard the food shelf's clients as "those people," be they minorities or simply the poor.

Neumann notes that more than 100 people who used the shelf last year were 60 years or over.

However, Neumann points out that anyone can come into need of the shelf. She said that a user could easily be a person's son, daughter, brother or sister.

While speaking to a group once (another one of her duties), she overheard someone say, "Those people ­ why don't they just take care of themselves?" Neumann knows "those people" could easily be someone that person knows.

Neumann notes that very few of her customers are repeat clients, but are merely making ends meet through a crisis or a first pay check.

For instance, the idea that many migrants are using the shelf constantly is incorrect. Of the 442 households that she served last year, less than 150 were migrant laborers. Also, of the 442, only 31 households used it a second time.

Neumann is a confident spokesperson for the shelf and has seen it through a number of challenges. The financial crisis that put her in the coordinator position almost threatened to shut the food shelf down completely.

The constant need for funding and donations exists. Despite the name, the food shelf is not a county agency and in the past only received free rent when it was stationed in the courthouse.

Now, at its new location, the food shelf has come under some criticismbecause it moved from the courthouse to a location where it must pay its own rent.

Citing an editorial that criticized the shelf for having to allocate monies for rent, Neumann said, "I was very hurt when I read that."

She argues that the food shelf needed more space and she is dedicated to stepping up her efforts so that no services to clients are cut to pay the rent.

She also points out all the donated equipment and supplies that have helped her to cut costs. Finally, Neumann insists that clients are more comfortable approaching the food shelf now that it is not housed in the courthouse.

Despite the difficulties, Neumann is very dedicated to the challenge of, in her words, "the only organization that would like to go out of business."

She admits that such a desire might be wishful thinking and that there will always be hungry people.

In some ways, she feels that the need may have gotten stronger, noting that times have changed, and neighbors used to help each other more. Now, she wonders if neighbors even know each other.

Still, such thoughts don't appear to shake Neumann's resolve to help out. Working at the shelf has been her reason to get out and meet people. That much, she enjoys.

She has also grown to appreciate what she has. She said, "There are a lot of days where I just thank God for what I have."

Neumann also takes pride with the fact that she is helping others. She hopes such motivations will also infect others, since the food shelf is always in need of volunteers and donations.

One would think that working with such a tragic aspect of life would bring Neumann down. But she communicates a genuine affection for her work and an enthusiasm that seems endless.

As she walks the aisles, she jokes and remarks on what the shelf has enough of. She recounts stories from some of the volunteers who have helped to stock and sort the shelves.

Even the freebie shelf brings a smile to her face. The picture is of someone who is very content in taking up the challenge.

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