June 19, 2011; Source: Bemidji Pioneer | Bemidji, Minn., proudly calls itself home to the folkloric lumberjack Paul Bunyan. Much like the heroic lumberjack, for over 30 years, three secular nonprofit agencies have been performing superhero feats as they help friends and neighbors survive tough economic times.

The city, with a population of 13,000, has long struggled with poverty, unemployment and low-income jobs. A quarter of Beltrami County children live in poverty, twice the state rate. The Bemidji Food Shelf, Village of Hope, and Soup Kitchen have all served the community for decades. Today, they are seeing burgeoning community needs.

The Bemidji County Food Shelf, founded in 1982, has seen an increase in families seeking groceries this year. Short term emergency distribution efforts have been expanded from five times a year to monthly. Leaders estimate that half are younger than 17 and half are older.

In spite of the economy, the donations keep coming. In March, $55,000 was raised to purchase groceries from a local food bank. Stores generously donate food, and local citizens provide home grown fruits and vegetables. All of which will be used. Three days a week, there are lines of people waiting for the doors to open at 10:00 a.m.

“We just keep giving out food, but our numbers continue to grow,” said Randy McKain, Food Shelf director. “There are more people in need.”

Homeless people can’t use the Food Shelf because they don’t have a local residence card. But they can find temporary housing and services at the Village of Hope.

Village of Hope replaced a smaller shelter that was started in 1985. In April, 52 families stayed there, including 31 children. They are always full, have a waiting list, and turn people away.

The shelter is supported by grants, donations and state aid. The agency is starting contingency plans if budget talks lead to a government shutdown in July.

The Soup Kitchen has been providing meals since 1989. It provides warm, nutritious dinners to needy families three evenings a week. Meals served have increased from 4,501 in a four month period in 2009 to over 5,700 this year.

Each of these agencies has provided decades of service to Bemidji, independent of religious messages or connections. Is this unique in today’s world or are there other communities with similar efforts?—Nancy Knoche