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Friends in Need Food Shelf director credits volunteers, community for success

Friends and Need Food Shelf Director Michelle Rageth has led the St. Paul Park operation since 1998 and credits the success to the “generous community” and “amazing volunteers.” (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

While some south Washington County residents don’t think twice before picking up groceries, there are others who don’t know where they will get their next meal.

That is when Friends in Need Food Shelf Director Michelle Rageth and her army of volunteers step in.

The food shelf, founded in 1992 with the help of the Sue Kainz, the first director, has over the years helped hundreds of thousands of people who have stumbled on hard times. And since becoming the director 15 years ago, Rageth has been instrumental in building the food shelf into what it is today.

In need of work after getting a divorce, Rageth said accepting the director position at the food shelf was “exactly the blessing I needed at the exact time I needed it.”

“I needed a job that would pay the bills but still allow me to spend time with my children,” she said in an interview. “It was the perfect fit for me.”

A volunteer for several of the food shelf’s annual events, Rageth said she always wanted to do more.

“I wasn’t a regular Tuesday volunteer but I had worked with the organization in the past,” she explained. “The reason it runs so smoothly is because Sue (Kainz) really set it up right.”

When Kainz took a job with Minnesota FoodShare, an organization assisting food shelves across the state, she said she encouraged Rageth to apply for the position.

“That was probably the best thing I could have said to her and the best decision was made by the board to hire her,” Kainz said. “She knew what was expected of her, she knew what needed to be accomplished and she is certainly living up to that.”

In the first few years of her career, Rageth said she saw the number of area residents needing the food shelf’s assistance grow exponentially. New families were coming through the door and with the strained economy, more and more people relied on the food shelf and its emergency financial assistance.

In 2005, Majel Carroll, president of the board that oversees the Stone Soup Thrift Shop, started the food shelf’s emergency fund to help those in need of necessities other than food. Looking back on a client who had come in with makeshift bifocals, Rageth said it’s being able to offer something as simple as a pair of proper glasses that makes her job rewarding.

“This person had come in with glasses that were cut at the bottom and a magnifying glass was taped in,” she explained. “It just breaks your heart. But this is what our emergency fund can help with. Or if someone is short on the money for their prescription, we can help with that. Being able to fulfill those needs, I think, is the most rewarding.”

The fund is separate from the organization’s operating fund and is stocked with money from grants and donations. Each emergency fund request, Rageth said, is dealt with on a case by case basis.

A decade into her work with the nonprofit, Rageth received the Voice of Hunger award for her continued dedication to raising awareness of those dealing with hunger. It was an unexpected honor, she said.

“I had shown up to this event not expecting anything, and then I saw all my volunteers,” she said. “It’s always nice to be thanked but this is my passion. It’s my job to help others.”

The Second Hand Harvest-sponsored award was given to Rageth on account of her lobbying at the state Legislature for more funding for Minnesota food shelves.

“From the day she started she was willing to help,” Kainz said. “I’m just really proud of the work she has done. She gets it, she understands the community, she understands the people, and more than anything, I think the people really trust her and the food shelf.”

As the operation continued to grow, so did the number of volunteers. From a handful of volunteers serving between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year in 1998, to 160 volunteers serving upward of 37,000 today.

“We have the most amazing volunteers,” Rageth said. “They all help each other, share life experiences with one another. It’s truly like a family here."

The success of the food shelf, Rageth said, is because of the dedicated, community-focused people who give of their time to help others.

“It’s not something they do to pass the time,” she said of her volunteers. “It’s people who, out of the goodness of their hearts, give back and want to help others.”

The food shelf also has a unique situation with the Northern Tier Energy refinery in St. Paul Park. Located on the refinery’s property, the food shelf does not have to pay rent and is often the benefactor of large donations.

“We can’t thank them enough,” Rageth said. “They have always been so supportive of our mission.”

Each year, the Canadian Pacific’s Holiday Train makes its way through the area and through donations, the fundraiser brings in roughly half of the operation’s yearly operating budget as well as thousands of pounds of food. But with plans for an expanded venue and performances by Sheryl Crow and a capella group Take 6, the food shelf stands to make much more.

“This should be a really fun event, we are very excited,” Rageth said. “We are hoping a lot of people show up to support the event and the food shelf.”

Food shelf volunteers will be walking through the event with red buckets for cash donations.

“We are always accepting cash donations because we can stretch those dollars so much further,” she explained. “We are also in need of toiletries; hygiene products, toilet paper, toothpaste, shampoo. We really need those.”

For the thousands of families the operation serves each year, it means having access to emergency funds and getting fresh produce and vegetables, nutritious fruits and hearty canned goods when they otherwise would have gone hungry, Rageth said

“I couldn’t imagine having any other job than the one I have now,” she said. “And it’s all thanks to the generous community and our amazing volunteers. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. I cannot thank them enough.”