An outdoor shot of a Food Shelf in rural St. James, Minnesota

“What Do We Value?” Behind The Scenes at Watonwan County Food Shelf

On the drive into St. James, visitors are greeted by the historic Watonwan County Courthouse—a Romanesque Revival building completed in 1896 that is still in use today. Across the street from the historic building is a bright and cheery food shelf that serves not only the St. James community, but shoppers from all around the region. 

“It’s a busy one,” says Glenda, a shopper and resident of St. James who arrived early to beat the shopping rush. “It’s just nice to have somewhere to go to get the things that I need.”

A shopper browses the shelves at a Food Bank

Glenda shops for tomatoes to make her grandchildren lasagna.

The Watonwan County Food Shelf is a spacious and well-stocked food shelf located in the site of an old bowling alley. Shoppers check in at a large slate tabletop engraved with the bowling alley’s old logo, before filling up their shopping carts with fresh produce, canned goods, bread and other necessities. They are greeted by Stevie Ciske, the food shelf’s coordinator, who makes sure shoppers have a pleasant experience. 

“We asked ourselves ‘What do we value?’ We want shoppers to have choice, to feel secure, and we want to make sure that whatever day they come in, it’s going to be the same experience. We like to say that if we wouldn’t give it to our grandma, we wouldn’t give it to our shoppers,” says Stevie. 

“Our goal is that we have the same variety and same things for the first person that we do for our 350th person.”

A food shelf worker in front of shelves of canned goods.

Stevie Ciske makes sure that the shelves are well stocked and welcoming for shoppers.

A lot of work and community effort go into making sure that the food shelf is stocked and ready before opening the doors to the line gathering outside. Volunteers come early to unload food from Second Harvest Heartland trucks and make sure that shelves are looking full and inviting. 

“We work with teens in the community—I have a lot of kids volunteering. I have one who gets a calendar every month, and sure enough he was here every time we’re open, retrieving our shopping carts. It’s kind of fun for them. My kids come and volunteer and they don’t necessarily love cleaning up at home, but they love coming here! They love making sure the labels are straight and everything. It makes them feel really good about themselves.” 

Watonwan County Food Shelf also brings in interpreters to help shoppers make their selections. “90% of our shopping community is Hispanic,” says Stevie. “There isn’t really a word for ‘food shelf,’ but people understand ‘free grocery store,’ and we’ve had some good strategy in bringing people in.”

Today, Candi and her teenage son Michael are loading their full cart of groceries, including loaves of white and wheat bread into take-home bags. There’s no limit on bread at the Watonwan County Food Shelf, and shoppers are encouraged to take as much as they need.

“I work over in Madelia, and I live over on the west side of town. We go through a lot of bread. Well, he does.” Candi says while gesturing at Michael, as he grinned.

A mother and son pose with a shopping cart filled with bread and produce.

Candi and Michael make potato salad with food bank ingredients.

One of the reasons why the Watonwan County Food Shelf is always well-stocked with bread is through the efforts of Rebecca and her husband. Each week, they rescue bread from local stores and bring it to the food shelf. “We just think it’s important for every family to have bread,” says Rebecca. “Growing up there was a stack of bread with every meal. Stevie mentioned the need one day and we determined it was a great job for seniors. This is the same bread you can buy in the stores.”

A cooler full of dairy products next to a shelf full of bread.

The bread shelves are always well stocked due to the efforts of Rebecca and her husband.

Second Harvest Heartland is proud to partner with spaces like the Watonwan County Food Shelf in their efforts to help feed neighbors in St. James and surrounding areas. Through the efforts of Stevie, youth and senior volunteers, and bread rescue efforts from Rebecca and her husband, the Watonwan County Food Shelf is making a huge difference in the fight against hunger in rural Minnesota.

“There’s a whole lot of people behind the scenes making it all happen and we’re just thrilled to be a part of it,” says Rebecca.