BEMIDJI, Minn. -- As many area students relaxed during their winter break this week, about 20 members of the Bemidji High School student council took turns filling bags upon bags of kidney beans.

The Bemidji Community Food Shelf now is authorized to repackage bulk foods. Instead of buying 50 one-pound bags of kidney beans, it now can obtain a 50-pound bag and have volunteers repackage the beans into smaller bags for disbursement.

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"It's so much cheaper," said Jack Judkins, coordinator of the food shelf. "It really saves us a lot of money."

Noting that some bulk items, such as popcorn, bran cereal and flour, are provided at no cost, Judkins estimates the food shelf can save 40 percent to 50 percent on its products by buying bulk.

"It's great for us," he said.

The Bemidji food shelf is believed to be the first in northern Minnesota licensed for repackaging bulk foods, Judkins said, attributing that to the North Country Food Bank in Crookston. The food bank, which distributes surplus foods to area food shelves, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"We've been talking about doing it for years, but we were never in a position to do anything about it at our old place," Judkins said.

The food shelf, cramped in its former site in downtown Bemidji, previously used USDA-certified kitchens at Calvary Lutheran Church and the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area.

But, once the food shelf completed its relocation to the industrial park this past fall, the kitchen in the new site was inspected by both the city and the state as it obtained the necessary licensure.

The licensure also solves a long-standing issue for the food shelf concerning volunteers. Often, older children or adolescents have wanted to volunteer at the food shelf, but due to privacy, they couldn't work directly with clients. Now, the food shelf will have work available for potential volunteers in that age range.

"One of the things we've struggled with are the kids who want to volunteer," Judkins said. "We have an 18-year age limit for those working in the store, but now, with repackaging foods, the kids will love to do that."