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Coping with COVID: Heavens’s Table

Blake Faith Giving spirit — Greta Lintelman is a board member at the Heaven’s Table Food Shelf. Here she is in one of a few areas where food and supplies are kept.

FAIRMONT — Heaven’s Table Food Shelf board member Greta Lintelman thinks highly of the way she, her other board members, and volunteers were able to keep the business open while dealing with a global pandemic. The process took a lot of adapting, changing things around and keeping this free service going.

“I think we’ve adapted pretty darn well,” Lintelman said. “We’ve all stayed well and all of our volunteer base has been very cautious with masking and staying safe.”

Heaven’s Table Food Shelf opened in 2012 to fill the gap in the hunger needs of Martin County. Lintelman serves on the board and has been with Heaven’s Table Food Shelf for about 10 years. The Heaven’s Table Food Shelf board members consist of Lintelman, Sue Redman, Deb Adams, Diana Mosloski, Lynn Reeve, Barb Jensen, and Pedro Sanchez. They also have volunteers that help out in different capacities at Heaven’s Table Food Shelf.

Their purpose consists of providing and distributing food to eligible people in Martin County, providing fresh, locally grown food when available, and serving all communities in Martin County. The program seeks to provide assistance that helps people improve their situation, and receive donations for meeting the needs of the hungry, with a desire to serve clients with respect and dignity.

Several things changed for Heaven’s Table Food Shelf business over the last year. As the COVID news was breaking, Heaven’s Table Food Shelf was watching the progress of disease control and rethinking their standard business model would work. Many shelves closed but that wasn’t the route they wanted to take.

Thanks to the work of Governor Walz, the State of Minnesota and the Second Harvest Heartland food bank, grants became available to assist with changes in the business, as did supplies to cover the plan for increased demand. Those funds, along with the generosity of the communities’ businesses and private donors, have bolstered their capability to provide supplies to those with a need. Second Harvest used their grant money to buy a standard product that normally Heaven’s Table Food Shelf would have to pay for, providing it throughout the network for no charge.

In the past, people would come in and sit in the waiting areas and pick what themselves or their families needed. For each person in the family, the program adds 25-30 pounds of food. The food consists of choices of meat, vegetables, ready to eat meals, cereals, canned meats, beans, soups, canned meals, drinks, snacks, milk, dairy products, baby supplies, personal items such as ibuprofen or deodorant, household items such as toilet paper and hand soap and bonus items such as Oreos or tuna.

They quickly decided that they would have all customers stay in their cars and they would deliver the food to each vehicle. The process then became whether to do repacked boxes as many other shelves were doing or to find a way to continue to allow people to make choices for their families’ needs.

Heaven’s Table Food Shelf chose customer choice by numbering each car and provided order blanks to their customers so that they knew what was offered both dry goods and perishables. Each family received the opportunity to make choices that best fit their needs. The order comes into the business and is then filled by volunteers and delivered to the vehicle.

Heaven’s Table Food Shelf also provides other services. One of those services is Nutrition Assistance Programs for seniors (NAPs). Once a month qualifying people over the age of 6- are provided a food box. This is a government-funded program facilitated by Heaven’s Table Food Shelf.

There is also a backpack program aimed at eligible students in grades K-6 at participating Martin County Schools. These backpacks contain nutritious snacks and meals for use during the weekend away from school.

Some volunteers were very concerned with the risk of gathering and a large portion of their volunteers were at retirement age. Many of those concerned chose to reduce their risk by “taking a break” from volunteering. Lintelman estimated that Heaven’s Table Food Shelf lost 50 percent of its volunteers. Others chose to do the jobs that took less face-to-face involvement and all of them made the choice that was the best for their health and well-being.

Their schedulers went to work on finding more people willing to give of their time from a more diverse age range. This recruitment was done by word of mouth, talking to churches, posting a flyer at the mall for walkers and customers to see and by posting on the Heaven’s Table Food Shelf’s Facebook page.

They eventually found their volunteers. Some were laid off from work, some teens were looking for a project, and some small church groupings and teachers also pitched in.

Volunteers help in multiple ways, including distribution three days a week, unloading the food truck from Second Harvest twice a month, helping with NAPS distribution once a month, helping with the Backpack Program once a week, picking up rescue foods from Hyvee and Kwik Trip three times a week, and restocking shelves and cleaning.

Lintelman stated that if the volunteers worked at their spot a whole shift they learn their particular spot. When they come the next time, they’re asked if they’d like to learn something new and they can move to a different spot. These spots include two people in the pantry, two people in the bonus room, two people pulling produce, one person weighs, and one person packs the bag.

“They did pretty well first shift out of the barn,” Lintelman said. “Those that wanted to shift and learn something else we were happy to move them around into areas so we could get them cross-trained at every location in the place. It’s not that it’s hard, but it’s a different mindset at every location so there is some learning to do at each spot.”

In addition to their normal service hours, they were able to provide additional food drops through the warmer months and as late as early December. These drops were open to the public and supplied hundreds of families. Those drops were provided by Second Harvest Heartland at no charge and they were able to find enough people to help them load vehicles on a drive-through basis.

Prairie Lakes Transit has worked with the Department of Transportation to assist Heaven’s Table Food Shelf in providing deliveries to those that have a need to have their food order delivered. This is for people who don’t have a vehicle, can’t drive, or are quarantined. Prairie Lakes Transit takes the order right to their door. People who need this assistance can leave a message at the Heaven’s Table Food Shelf number: 507-238-5424.

As Heaven’s Table Food Shelf looks to the future, they are brainstorming on ways to simplify the system and reduce wait time. They have used grant money to purchase tablets as well as a possible online presence for ordering with pick-up timing. This ordering would be done through Google Docs and would have the same list as already provided at the drive-thru. This document hasn’t been made yet but is in the works. The reasoning behind this is to reduce waiting times and have the orders ready at the time of pickup.

Lintelman stated that the pandemic has taken its toll on the staff. She also stated that she, other board members, and volunteers feel safe. Lintelman viewed it as a good place to burn off her energy and get out and do something from not going anywhere else.

Lintelman learned during this pandemic that people are generous, not that she didn’t know that already, but she saw results in fundraising and knew of that work.

“There’s work to fundraising as well, but I came to realize that people just thought about us on their own,” Lintelman said. “That the community has a real generosity in them that has helped us fulfill what our mission is here.”

Lintelman’s message to the community and readers is to know that her and Heaven’s Table Food Shelf are here for them.

“You may never have used a food shelf in the past or may ever use it again,” Lintelman said. “But if you’re struggling, you’re quarantined or have a reason that you need us, we’re here for you. We don’t expect that to change other than modernizing things and maybe changing our system, but we expect to be there for them.”

The food shelf is open for drive-thru Tuesdays and Thursdays 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Anyone looking to join them in their efforts is welcome to leave a message on their phone at 507-238-5424 or contact Pauline Bergt at 507-236-2957. If you’re interested in helping with deliveries or distribution efforts, they are always interested in hearing from you as well.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you have a story about coping with COVID-19 whether you are a restaurant owner, small business owner, or an individual who would like to share your story, contact Sentinel Staff Writer Blake Faith via his email: bfaith@fairmontsentinel.com.

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