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TRF produce giveaway draws hundreds

Hundreds of people turned out this morning at the Pennington County Fairgrounds for their chance to get some of the more than 100,000 pounds of produce being given away for free.

Produce crate
Duane Olson takes the cabbage out from the bottom of a crate during the Don Armstrong Potato and Produce Giveaway at the Pennington County Fairgrounds in Thief River Falls, Minn. 12,000 pounds of cabbage was handed out on Saturday. Photo by Sarah Kolberg, Grand Forks Herald

Hundreds of people turned out this morning at the Pennington County Fairgrounds for their chance to get some of the more than 100,000 pounds of produce being given away for free.

Sheila Johnson drove from St. Hilaire, Minn., to volunteer and help out during the giveaway. She was bagging squash, and said her efforts were amply rewarded by the people she talked with who were coming through the line to get their food.

"When you see how happy they are, smiling and thankful, that's enough for me," she said.

The scene resembled a McDonald's drive-thru during the busiest part of the day, but even busier. A line of vehicles stretched down Engelstad Drive, then wrapped around the corner and continued east onto state Highway 1 for several blocks.

And instead of getting a value meal or some hamburgers, they didn't have to open their wallets to get a trunk full of fresh produce. One car left with four pumpkins, two bags of squash, a large cabbage, a bag of potatoes and a bag of corn -- so much food that it was difficult to get the trunk to latch.

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Vehicles waited in line for about 30 minutes before getting to the front of the line, but no one seemed impatient with the wait. Considering how many people turned out for the food, the line kept progressing quickly, with workers loading up between three and five vehicles every minute.

Giving back

Don Armstrong, a Thief River Falls native who is now a potato broker in Michigan, decided to help out his hometown by giving away the produce. But to really understand the scope of this, it's important to look at just how much food was on the fairgrounds Saturday.

About 43,000 pounds of potatoes, split into 20-pound bags, filled an entire semi. The warehouse next door was stuffed with 20,000 pounds of pumpkins, 17,000 pounds of squash, 12,000 pounds of cabbage and 3,000 pounds of sweet corn.

There were also about 1,000 colossal onions, each weighing 1 to 2 pounds or more, and around 2,500 cans of vegetables and soups. That all adds up to about 100,000 pounds of produce, or 50 tons worth of food.

The turnout Saturday took even Armstrong by surprise. Vehicles were backed up for more than half a mile long before the 11 a.m. scheduled start time, so they started loading up trunks and truck cabs at 8:45 a.m. to handle the demand.

Armstrong's wife, Vera, said this event is a way to give food to residents who may not otherwise go to food shelves or ask for help during the bad economic times. "A lot of people are embarrassed, and they don't want to admit they need food," she said.

Armstrong said he held a similar giveaway last year in Michigan, and has another one planned for October. "It's just to give back to the communities," he said.

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Terry Nennich, extension professor at the University of Minnesota extension office, said this event relied on volunteers and the charity of countless people. Trucking lines volunteered to haul the produce to the fairgrounds, some of the produce was sold at reduced cost and many people showed up to help load vehicles.

"There's so many people that have contributed in some small way to make this successful," he said.

Free food

Jessica Molstad braved the long line of cars to get some food for herself and her boyfriend. The Thief River Falls native said she was grateful for the event.

"I think it's a great help," she said.

Kelsey Jensen was also there to get some free food. The Thief River Falls girl said she has a big family with lots of siblings, so they could definitely use some extra produce. She said the community is helped by events like this, adding that the event was "kind of like a food shelf."

Jeremy Platt found out about the event on the Internet, and said it sounded like a lifesaver right now. "We figured it's a good way to make it by," he said. "That's a big donation you don't see very often anymore."

His fiancé added that it would be the first time they've had real potatoes in a while.

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Walter Redinger, a former Thief River Falls middle school teacher, said he heard about it and was surprised at Armstrong's generosity.

His wife, Marilyn, said it shows that residents can help each other even during a recession. "There's still some good people around."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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