OWATONNA — “They just kept bringing food, and bringing food,” said Nancy Ness, executive director of the Owatonna-based Steele County Food Shelf. “All of them made several trips because we had so much food donated.”

Ness said the amount of items brought in by both the Blooming Prairie and Owatonna schools for November’s Sack Hunger Food Drive far exceeded her expectations. With their respective football teams both making it into the state tournament — and the Blossoms going on to win the Class 1A championship – the two high schools were invited to participate in the accompanying fundraiser, organized by the Minnesota State High School League and Second Harvest Heartland.

Elementary schools, middle schools and businesses in both communities soon got in on the action, with the two districts ultimately bringing in over 5,000 pounds of food combined during the drive. Blooming Prairie weighed in at 2,171 and Owatonna came up with 3,108 pounds after the almost month-long fundraiser.

According to John Millea, media specialist with the Minnesota State High School League, the Steele County districts are two of the three statewide who have told the league they participated in Sack Hunger and have shared their totals after wrapping things up Nov. 26. Other schools have until the end of the week to get their numbers in, and Millea estimated that the winner would be announced on Friday.

More for the holidays

Student council members at Owatonna High School kicked off their Sack Hunger campaign at a Nov. 7 pep rally, where teens and staff who already knew about the drive came forward from the bleachers with nonperishable items. All donations helped fill a makeshift end zone at one side of the gym. Owatonna Middle School — as well as Lincoln, Washington, and McKinley elementary schools — soon jumped in and set up collection sites of their own.

Sandra Justice, student council adviser at the high school, said Lincoln ended up bringing in the most food by weight of all participants in the district. Complete Health with Destinee, a health and fitness coaching service in Owatonna, also worked with the schools to collect food for the drive.

“I was blown away,” Justice said, of the amount donated. “You kind of collect in trickles, and so to have that final total was really surprising and kind of overwhelming.”

Ness also called it overwhelming, and praised the variety that food drives can bring in — diversity that she said the food shelf can’t always necessarily get when ordering through its typical channels. Although the number of people using the Steele County Food Shelf doesn’t necessarily change during the holidays, Ness said the volume of food needed often increases, making it a busier time of year for the nonprofit.

“Oftentimes, it’s because they’re having company for the holidays and they need extra food on hand for folks that are staying with them,” she explained. “They’re cooking more and trying to celebrate the holidays in the way that we all love to do.”

Students take charge

While Owatonna tried to start up Sack Hunger last year — the first year that the initiative took place — it didn’t really get off the ground until this time around according to Camryn Bartz, the high school’s student council president. Blooming Prairie also didn’t get the program running until this fall, merging it with a preexisting November food drive by the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America student group. FCCLA took the reins on Sack Hunger, expanding their previous drive out to both the elementary school and greater community with help from the high school football team.

“[Students] went out, talked to community businesses and asked if we could put boxes in their shop,” explained Alison Mach, associate principal and activities director at Blooming Prairie High School. “We sent football players and FCCLA members around to businesses to collect food, sometimes daily. Then they had to weigh it, get it organized and figure out ways to transport it.”

Mach also said she was surprised by the amount the school ended up bringing in, although she added that she didn’t really know what to expect at the beginning.

“Originally, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s get 1,000 pounds.’ Then, we exceeded that and 2,000 pounds was our goal,” said Mach. “I think that the fact that it was tied with football made people more aware.”

Blooming Prairie made a run all the way through the state tournament — which lasted for much of November — ultimately winning the Class 1A division to become the first state champions in program history on Nov. 29. Off the field, the Blossoms raised almost as much food as Owatonna and combined the two districts brought in over 5,000 pounds for the food shelf.

Volunteers needed

With the holidays in full swing and a possible increase in usage due to new industry in the area, Ness said the fundraiser made a huge mark on the food shelf. In addition to donations of nonperishable items, Ness added that her team is always looking for more volunteers during the winter months.

“A lot of our volunteers are retired and tend to like to go south for the winter, so this becomes a difficult time for making sure we always have enough volunteers in here helping us,” she explained. “We have three to three-and-a-half hour shifts, and I think people would really enjoy working here. We have a lot of fun, and keep things light and happy.”

For more information, Ness encouraged residents to visit the Steele County Food Shelf or call the nonprofit at 507-455-2991.

The winner of Sack Hunger will be announced later this week. Students will then be honored with T-shirts, a plaque and a celebration at a home sports game of the school’s choosing, according to Millea.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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