United Way offices, Welcome Pantry moving to former Streater building

Published 8:41 pm Saturday, April 8, 2023

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What started in 2022 as a mobile food pantry through the United Way of Freeborn County will soon have a brick-and-mortar location for residents to visit.

The Welcome Pantry is expected to open in late June in a portion of the former Streater building on First Avenue, where it will be adjacent to the United Way administrative offices. 

United Way of Freeborn County announced this week it signed a lease with 411 1st LLC, the owner of the building, which has been working to repurpose the property for other businesses.

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The United Way began the search for a new space in early 2022 as some of its programs, including the Welcome Pantry and Winter Gear Drive, expanded and developed. Its offices were previously in the Albert Lea Business Development Center on Y.H. Hanson Avenue.

The new area the United Way leases includes 5,000 square feet of space with a combination of open space, office space and access to loading docks. It will also provide a place for classes on areas of health, education and economic mobility, including cooking demonstrations and financial literacy, as well as a permanent place for the items for the Winter Gear Drive to be placed.

“I’m excited to see the community’s reaction when they get to come in and see the new space,” said Heidi Skinner, who serves as co-coordinator of the Welcome Pantry with Nikolle Guion. The food pantry is expected to be painted with bright colors and have large images of fresh fruits and vegetables on the walls.

Skinner, Guion and United Way Executive Director Erin Haag have previously stated they hope the pantry can reduce the stigma that comes with people asking for help — and ultimately increase the health of residents in the county. They hope it can complement other food pantries already in the community.

The pantry is expected to incorporate information gathered from people who have utilized food shelves before about what worked and what needed improvement.

People will be able to walk around and shop for their own food, allowing them to choose foods their families like and that meet their dietary restrictions.

Between 150 and 250 households have been receiving food through the mobile distributions each month — and about half of those households have been seniors.

Skinner said they knew there was a great need for seniors in the community but did not realize the need was as high as it is.

The women said they have plans for the pantry to be open two weekdays every week and one Saturday a month to start with. They’re hoping to eventually add one other day per week and hope to allow people to shop more than one time a month if needed.

Guion said while the mobile pantries that the organization has organized during the last year have not been ideal, they have helped establish relationships in the community. She said while the effort may look somewhat different in the new space, she reassured that there will be many of the same volunteers.

“It’s been really fun to see the volunteers learn about the philosophy of our food pantry,” Haag said.

As a TEFAP food pantry, the only requirements to attend are to be located in Minnesota and to have an income of less than 300% of the federal poverty guidelines.

Skinner emphasized that all of the upgrades that are being done to the space to prepare for the food pantry and office space are being paid for with grant funds and not funds out of the United Way’s general campaign.

Initial infrastructure funding was secured in partnership with Channel One Regional Food Bank, which received a donation from Dale Larson to spearhead a food transformation project. Further funding was secured through grant opportunities.

The women said they are looking to start an advisory committee for the food pantry and are looking for people who have had experience at a food pantry, volunteered at pantry or who are simply interested in hunger relief to join. The committee will meet one time a month to start.

Haag said she expected the offices to be ready in late April and early May with a grand opening for the Welcome Pantry in late June. She said they would love to have service groups come to take tours of the space and consider getting involved as volunteers.

She thanked Paintball and Thompson Electric for offering in-kind donations to help offset the capital expense and also commended 411 1st LLC for providing an in-kind donation through reduced rent.

Construction is overseen by Larson Construction.


Upcoming United Way Welcome Pantry mobile distribution

When: 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. April 18

Where: 410 Prospect Ave. in Albert Lea