Steele County Food Shelf

Volunteers have been the driving force behind the Community Pathways of Steele County since the very beginning, especially when it comes to the various tasks on the food shelf side. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the organizations has had to cease using volunteers in order to limit the exposure in the facility until further notice. (Press file photo)

Leadership at Community Pathways made some difficult decisions last month in relation to how the Marketplace customers will be served, but, according to Executive Director Nancy Ness, it was the only option.

“It has been very difficult, but we know it has been the right thing to do,” she said.

In April, the Marketplace inside Community Pathways, which serves as the food shelf for Steele County, stopped using volunteers in order to limit any potential exposure to COVID-19. As of Monday, Steele County had 24 confirmed cases of the virus according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“If the virus came into our facility, we would be facing some dramatic consequences,” Ness said. “All staff would be on a mandatory 14-day quarantine, which means we would have to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. If we inadvertently gave a product that contained the virus and passed it on to one of our customers, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, we would be devastated.”

Ness explained that Community Pathways relies on about 100 volunteers to provide services to its customers. At this point, only the handful of staff members are filling all the orders through the Marketplace. Unique Finds – formally the Clothesline – has been closed since the stay-at-home order was implemented.

To further ensure safety of both the staff and clients, Ness said that it’s temporarily stopped accepting food donations from local grocers. The primary reason: Community Pathways staff doesn’t know “who all has touched the product” and therefore would have to quarantine the food in accordance with safety guidelines.

“Oftentimes the items we get from local grocers is produce that is at its expiration or breads that are at the end of their shelf life, so we try to hand those out and encourage that they are consumed right away,” Ness said. “It just didn’t make sense from that perspective as they would go bad while in quarantine.”

By limiting the food donations the Marketplace’s inventory quickly dwindled. Ness says that it’s now receiving food from the Channel One food bank only. That food is pre-packaged, but the packages do not meet the SuperShelf standards implemented at Community Pathways a year ago. In turn, the staff has had to supplement the packages with its already waning food inventory to round the boxes out.

While difficult, Ness says that these tough decisions were the right one for the organization that provides such a crucial public service.

“Limiting who and what comes into our building has a definite impact by lessening our exposure and ensuring we can remain open for the most important service we provide, which is monthly food shopping,” Ness said. “Our dailies program usually consisted of the items we received from the local stores, and since we weren’t getting that stock any longer it made sense to stop the daily program.”

Community Pathways is now exclusively serving its monthly subscribers.

Ness said that’s made the workload easier on its now smaller staff. As it runs low on certain items — such as fruit and vegetables — Ness said she plans to order canned items in those categories from local grocers to put money back into the community, and support those who have supported the Marketplace. When fresh produce does come in through Channel One, which typically would go out to the daily program, Ness said that the staff makes sure to put it in a monthly box that is going out that day.

“We feel bad that we had to stop the daily program, but we just can’t risk it,” Ness said holding back emotions. “The monthly food is so important that we had to weigh our options on what we thought was the best thing to do in order to continue our programs.”

While the times continue to prove difficult for the crew at Community Pathways, Ness was stunned to learn of a local effort currently underway that will directly benefit the local food shelf. On April 28, the Astrup Family Foundation launched its Sterling Community Food Fundraiser, offering to match the money raised throughout all of the Sterling Pharmacy communities.

“The impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented. People are sick, scared, out of work, out of school and in need of support from their communities,” said a spokesperson from Astrup Cos., parent company of Sterling. “Our Sterling Pharmacy family works hard every day to provide support for one basic need — health — but right now, we need to go a step further. We want to help fill the food shelves in all Sterling Pharmacy communities to make sure our patients and communities have what they need to weather this storm.”

The Owatonna Sterling staff, which operated both at the Sterling Pharmacy attached to Kwik Trip on Hoffman Drive and the new Sterling Home gift shop on Cedar Avenue, set a goal to raise $1,500 for Community Pathways. The Astrup Family Foundation will match dollars raised up to $25,000.

“This community has been amazing, that’s why we just know that we have to keep doing what is right for our customers,” said an overwhelmed Ness as she learned of the fundraiser. “People out there are so generous and it’s our responsibility to make sure that our people can eat and be healthy, we can’t let anything get in our way.”

Ness said that she plans to use whatever money is raised through the fundraiser to purchase food which can be quarantined from local providers.

“It’s all about the sustainability for communities that is so important,” Ness said as to why she wants to put local dollars raised back into the community. “This keeps our hearts full.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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