MONTELLO - The Marquette County Board of Supervisors is plotting a massive jailbreak and seeking federal and state funding to pull it off.

But don't worry - only non-perishable and canned inmates might escape.

A board-appointed subcommittee is in the process of writing Community Development Block Grants and finding donors to help transplant its nationally renowned Care and Share Food Bank from the county's old jailhouse to a new building south of Montello.

The bank, which started as a collection of donated food in a county courtroom closet, has grown to take over the bottom floor of the old county jail and now serves 51,743 pounds of food to more than 600 Marquette County families each year, said Sylvia Phillis, county Department of Human Services Aging Unit manager and Care and Share Food Bank coordinator. The federal government named The Care and Share Food Bank one of the 17 best county volunteer organizations in the country in 2007.

But the growing need of the county - and in some ways, the growing success of the food pantry - sometimes can be a hassle.

"We've really outgrown the space," Phillis said. "It's not convenient for the volunteers and its not convenient for the families that come."

Dozens of boxes full of paperwork are stored in the jail's basement, and on the main level easy storage and removal space can be difficult to come by.

In the old jail's entry, 4,000 pounds of potatoes lie huddled in a corner. The solitary confinement cells that once separated misbehaving criminals now houses hundreds of peanut butter and jelly jars. In the visiting room, where guests would gesture and talk to inmates through glass windows and holes in the metal wall, boxes of lasagna noodles and a 27-ounce can of red kidney beans sat on opposite sides of the glass as if in conversation.

Parking is also becoming more of an issue, Phillis said.

Cars lined up behind the old jail at 9 a.m. to take advantage of free turkey, pie and other fixings during last year's "Adopt a family for Thanksgiving" giveaway. That day the food bank gave away $14,000 in food. By 1 p.m., when the pantry opened, hundreds of cars idled in line, and blocked entry to the courthouse parking lot, said eight-year volunteer Peter Kraus.

Kraus and volunteer George Lekas bustled around the food bank Wednesday, prepackaging food for this year's giveaways today and each Thursday in the next two weeks. They hope to ease congestion by spreading out this year's giveaway to three days, but they said the jail and parking lot still will be packed.

The volunteers said the jail environment is odd for a food bank, but they are both proud of their work and say they'd gladly give food away in any place.

"I'll give food out of my van," Lekas said. "Location doesn't matter to me."

But the County Board sees this as a great time to free the program from the jail and simultaneously relieve the parking and storage issues.

"The project itself is a really decent idea. I think we can pull it off," said Jeremy Kral, Marquette County director of human services. "Our need has dramatically increased and (the center has) won national awards."

All parties agree on the need - the food bank gave away 12 percent more food in 2009 than the previous year. The only issue is funding.

Because of increasing budget pressures, the new food bank, like the current one, would have to be self-sufficient, running off of volunteer hours and a mixture of public and private grants and donations.

County Supervisors Mike Ingram and Mike Raddatz said that planning is still in the early stages, but the group has already been able to secure pledges for a new walk-in freezer and forklift if the plan moves forward.

Ingram and Raddatz are on the sub-committee exploring grant and donation possibilities that identified a 6-year-old building a few miles south of Montello as a possible relocation spot.

The building and its three acres would cost the county less than $200,000, according to Phillis, but because the program currently runs cost-free - its utility bills are picked up by the county, which uses the old jail for storage and office space - the board members need to corral enough cash to run the program without county aide.

Proponents say self-sufficiency is a high order, but grants and a partnership could carry the project even further than a food pantry.

Marquette County might lease part of the new facility, or part of its three acres, to Diverse Options, a nonprofit that assists and employs about 40 people with disabilities in the county.

The public-nonprofit partnership "would be a tremendous opportunity for our members to volunteer," said Allen Schraeder, president and CEO of Diverse Options.

One idea, which has already been done elsewhere, is to have a community center where people could pick up food from the pantry and shop at a Diverse Options thrift store running out of the same building.

"It's exciting to work with the county," Schraeder said. "I really personally think it's going to benefit a lot of people."

aebert@

capitalnewspapers.com

745-3509

 

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