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Foodshelf started by alumna grows into a community affair

Fresh produce grown by the Spanish community garden is distributed at the Jordan Area Food Shelf.
Fresh produce grown by the Spanish community garden is distributed at the Jordan Area Food Shelf.
Minnesota FoodShare

The annual March Campaign is the single largest food drive in Minnesota and restocks nearly 300 food shelves across the state. Many of these community based food shelves provide critical support for neighbors and are entirely volunteer-run, including one spearheaded by St. Kate's alumna Tanya Velishek ’94.

During her bid for the Jordan City Council in the fall of 2008, Velishek discovered that the mobile food shelf that served the area was going to close.

She and the police chief quickly pulled together a committee including a group of churches from the Jordan area — Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and non-denomination — and did a community assessment which revealed that 5–6 percent of the township’s residents relied on the service.

In this Q & A, Velishek shares how the Jordan Area Food Shelf evolved into a community-building experience. 

How did the Jordan Area Food Shelf come together? What’s your role?

Tanya VelishekOnce the committee decided to find a building, I put the policies and books together, did paperwork to file as a nonprofit and became director of the food shelf. The chief of the police is co-chair. In October 2009, we opened our building and did paperwork for Second Harvest. I do the budget and my dad does all the taxes.

Everything is donated by people from the Jordan area. It’s entirely volunteer-run. We have over 100 volunteers and a food shelf coordinator who coordinates the volunteers and the food. All Jordan schools — elementary, middle and high school levels — do fundraising. The boy scouts fundraise. The retired teachers come and stock when we get our food deliveries. Radermacher’s — our local grocery store — donates day-old bread and sweets every Saturday. People that use the food shelf also come back and volunteer.

Since I am bilingual, I also help with the Spanish garden. This program has brought the Spanish population into our community. In order to give back, they have a garden. An area farmer gave them half an acre and we had plants donated from a local greenhouse. So the Spanish residents work the garden and that provides fresh produce for the food shelf. 

Once a month, residents are able to have 23 pounds of food per person in their family. We’re open every Saturday, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.

Who accesses the food shelf? Have you seen any changes in recent years?

The working poor, it can be your farmers, the Spanish community. These are people who work, but can’t meet their basic needs. We also serve people who have lost their jobs, and are trying to get back on their feet. When economy went south at the end of 2009, the number of our residents who access the food shelf jumped to 10 percent.

Something unique about our food shelf is that we have people of all faiths participating and helping. It’s not just one church, it’s all of us. We support each other. It’s a close-knit community. I remember who you are, but I try not to remember who you are, in order to respect confidentiality. A lot of people are in tears. It’s very difficult for them to ask for help. 

That part is the most humbling. There are a lot of people who are ashamed, they have a lot of strong feelings about using a food shelf.  But we welcome them in, we don’t ask questions. We just take them in like they’re going to grocery shop, help them carry their food out to their cars and try to make it a pleasant experience.

Do you offer any other services?

We connected this year with the school backpack program. Even though families might have used the food shelf, at the end of the week there were kids going home hungry. So the elementary school started a backpack program with about 70 students. The kids would take a backpack home that had bananas, bread and other staples to get them by. The food shelf took that on, so we provide the items for the backpacks. Kids go into the school office and pick up their backpack of food and toiletries. It looks like your standard backpack that kids take home so there’s no stigma — it blends in.

During Halloween, one of the local churches collects children’s costumes. There are also groups that donate turkeys and whole meals during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Area kids make blankets during winter. We also collect hats, gloves, coats and boots during the winter because I’ve seen kids come in with no outer wear in the freezing cold.

Depending on what other needs they may have, we try to redirect them to other community services. Our hope is to offer free clinics some day with immunizations and children’s care. I’d also like to expand and offer a thrift store and a women or teen shelter.

How much food do you raise during the March Campaign? What items does the food shelf need most? How can people donate?

In past years we’ve received about $15,000 and anywhere from 10–15 thousand pounds of food. We are in most need of toilet paper, toothpaste, sugar and flour.

Both in the backpack program and at the food shelf, we provide non-food items as well — toilet paper, tooth brushes, detergent, personal hygiene items.

We also offer fresh and perishable items, including fruits and vegetables, bread, eggs, milk, butter and meat. Basically, I want everyone to have access to all of the food groups.

People who live in the Jordan area can donate by going to Hometown Bank and writing checks to Jordan Area Food Shelf. Everything they donate is a tax write-off because it’s a 501c3. I urge people who live in other areas of the state to donate this month to their local food shelves. You can find a list of participating places on Minnesota FoodShare’s website.

You work full-time, have a family and volunteer extensively. How do you juggle it all?

Well, I am a little overstretched! But I have wonderful kids and my parents are a great support. I have a hard time saying no, because I don’t really want to say no. My passion is working with underserved communities and moving women and children forward.

Going to St. Kate’s and learning leadership — that core of the women’s college — has really steered me to where I’m at. I liked the global health and service focus at St. Kate’s. It’s a big world and you’ve got to look at all the aspects. Alice Swan, my professor at St. Kate’s used to tell me “Well you certainly have the drive and are stubborn enough to move it forward.” And I’m like “yes!” If I see an opportunity to do something, to make a difference, I take it.

I’ve learned that success doesn’t have to be a huge process. But if you help one person, you’ve helped more than if you had done nothing.

More about Tanya Velishek

Velishek earned a bachelor degree in nursing from St. Catherine University and master’s degree in nursing from the University of Phoenix. She is the Academic Clinical Placement Coordinator for Fairview Health Services. She serves as an adjunct nursing instructor at Minnesota State University, Mankato and the Minnesota School of Business. Velishek is in her second term as a Jordan city council member. She coordinates physician and nursing volunteers on two annual trips to Peru, where they provide clinical services for children and women.

March 25, 2014 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Alumnae/i, Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice