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Holiday train crucial to food shelf budget

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will make its sixth annual stop in Cottage Grove on Friday, Dec. 12 near the Youth Service Bureau building on West Point Douglas Road. The holiday tradition last year raised roughly $38,000 for the Friends in Need Food Shelf. (Submitted photo)

The number of families relying on St. Paul Park's Friends in Need Food Shelf to get them through lean times the last three years just keeps going up, up, up.

And with economic worry doing its best to dampen holiday cheer, it might be expected that donations to the increasingly needed food shelf are going down, down, down.

But that's not the case at all, says the food shelf's director Michelle Rageth.

"You think it would be the perfect storm, where you'd have all our donations dry up," she said last week. "But its been just the opposite."

And a big part -- the biggest, in fact -- is the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train, making its annual stop in Cottage Grove for the sixth time next week. Last year the event raised roughly $38,000 for Friends in Need. That's around one-sixth of the food shelf's annual budget and its largest single fundraising event held each year.

"We are so grateful," Rageth said. "This community is the most amazing community in the world and they give, and give, and give and care about their neighbors."

The help is sorely needed. Last year, 13,000 people used the St. Paul Park food shelf, up from around 11,500 in 2006. And those numbers are up substantially from the 3,000 to 4,000 who were using Friends in Need a decade before, Rageth said.

This year, Rageth said, Friends in Need will have helped a staggering 15,000 to keep from going hungry. Over the past few years, the food shelf has averaged 30 to 40 families per week; at times this year, Rageth said, they're helping close to 120.

So the growing popularity of the Holiday Train's yearly stop in south Washington County means the much-needed donations continue to flood in.

"Every year we get a little bit more in, it helps us serve the increase in clients," Rageth said.

Rageth and Friends in Need can take the cash raised during the annual event and stretch it even farther than donated canned goods, purchasing food at a deep discount from Second Harvest Heartland, a St. Paul-based hunger relief organization.

Holiday Train community organizer Mary Slusser is just glad to help. Local interest has exploded in the Christmas light-adorned train that features entertainment from a boxcar. Canadian Pacific officials estimated 8,000 attended last year's festivities in Cottage Grove, making it the largest stop on the cross-continent route, Slusser said.

This year marks the Holiday Train's 10th anniversary. It will make its sixth stop in Cottage Grove on Friday, Dec. 12 from 5:45 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on West Point Douglas Road near the Youth Service Bureau. All proceeds from the event go to the Friends in Need Food Shelf.

For more information, call the Holiday Train Committee at (651) 458-8383, or e-mail

Jon Avise can be reached at