CAER welcomed family ‘with arms wide open’

by Britt Aamodt
Contributing writer

It begins with a job loss or medical bills.

In good writing, by the way, leading sentences do not begin with “it.” A writer is urged to declare her subject. But the “it” we’re talking about generates a feeling of dread not unlike terminal cancer. So people talk around it, if they talk about it at all.

Once the job is lost or when the medical bills start piling up, the cutbacks begin. First it’s no eating out. Then it’s no soda and chips. Nothing fancy.

Then the cutbacks dig deeper. Less meat and fresh produce, more oatmeal and

Jennifer Gray has been with CAER for seven years. She took over as executive director in 2008, the year, “the world got very busy,” she says, referring to the recession and increased demands on food shelves. Photo by Britt Aamodt

rice. The cheap stuff. Go for that.

But the job doesn’t return. The creditors want their bills paid.

So, shopping at Cub and Coborn’s becomes shopping at a discount store like Aldi. But even that becomes a hardship. Diapers, milk, bread, eggs—those items add up, and the kids have to eat.

But where’s the money coming from when there’s a mortgage payment or rent, utilities, and gas to consider? Then the car breaks down.

So “it” is finally spoken aloud.

“What if we went to a food shelf? Just for a few months, you know, until we get back on our feet.”

Relying on food shelves has become a fact of life for thousands of Minnesotans, who never thought they’d need help putting food on the table. They never wanted help. But now they can’t ignore their need.

Heidi and Dan Scherer, Elk River, had that discussion in 2010. Dan experienced a job change. Though he found a new position in home remodeling sales, the new job was commission-based.

No money would flow into the Scherer house until the remodel was cinched. Added to that, the housing industry was in free fall in 2010.

“We were in need and went looking for local food shelves,” says Heidi. “It was such a blessing to find CAER. They welcomed us with arms wide open.”

The Scherers have two girls. Heidi says they went to CAER, the nonprofit serving Elk River, Otsego and Zimmerman families in need of emergency food, for their family.

“No one wants to come to a food shelf,” says Jennifer Gray, director of CAER.

“Many wouldn’t come if it wasn’t for their children.”

Last year, CAER served 1,647 households. That was an increase of 512 households from 2010. Gray says the number has increased every year since 2008.

With need increasing and resources limited, CAER and other Minnesota food shelves are pulling out all stops for the March food drive. CAER’s goal is to collect 115,000 pounds of food and/or raise $115,000 by the end of the month.

The Scherers are among the lucky ones. They only needed to use CAER intermittently for about a year. Others are still waiting for their fortunes to improve—and hope they will.

Gray says the people she sees in her office “have usually exhausted all their options before coming here. There’s a stigma to using a food shelf. But I think that’s getting better, because many of us know someone.”

The people who sit down with Gray to request a basic food package have run the gamut from military veterans, senior citizens and cancer patients to single parents and the long-term unemployed.

More surprising, “last year, 60 percent of the households that came to CAER were employed, but underemployed,” says Gray.

“What’s nice about CAER is that they don’t just hand you a bag and say, ‘Here you go,’” says Scherer. “They sit down with you and find out what you need. They’re always asking if there’s anything special you need.” For her it was diapers and baby formula.

CAER accepts food and money donations, as well as clothing and smaller household items. Monetary donations can be the most useful, says Gray, because CAER is able to get better deals on food than the average consumer.

But always there are urgently needed food and household items, which Gray updates on CAER’s website.

“It was humbling. I never thought I would have to go to a food shelf,” Scherer says. “But if my story can help someone, I’m glad. Because there’s no shame in asking for help.”

How to donate to CAER
March is Minnesota FoodShare Month, and the drive is underway to collect food and donations for the CAER food shelf in Elk River.

Here’s how to donate:
•Send checks to CAER, 19279 Watson St. NW, Elk River, Mn. 55330
•Donate via PayPal at CAER’s website,
•Drop off donations of non-perishable food at CAER. Hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 6-8 p.m. Monday and Thursday.