Local food pantries are in line for a boost as the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train rolls into Portage Wednesday.
The event raises money and awareness in the stop at the north side of the railroad tracks on Averbeck Street near the Portage Curling Club at 1:15 p.m., followed by live music from Meghan Patrick, Tanika Charles and Kelly Prescott.
“It’s just such a huge relief because you’re getting a lot more requests as a food pantry at this time of year,” said Tricia Pionke, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul. “It’s the holidays and people are trying to buy gifts for their families, so everything gets spread kind of thin.”
St. Vincent and Portage Food Pantry alternate years in which they receive a donation check from CP Rail — $4,500 went to St. Vincent last year — and the local pantries also split the food donations that come in during the train stop.
“It’s a very substantial donation and something we can count on every year,” said Portage Food Pantry volunteer Barb Chesney.
Portage Food Pantry serves 165 households per month, on average, but has seen a 25 percent increase in the past two months, Chesney said. “Last month we served over 200 (households) and we expect that’s what it’ll be this month, too.”
St. Vincent de Paul serves 215 households per month, on average, but that figure jumps to over 300 households from November through January, every year, Pionke said.
“That amounts to over 800 people served, per month, during the holidays,” Pionke said of the figures. “We know that when the Holiday Train comes to Portage, it raises awareness for the fight against hunger. It’s a big deal. It makes people realize there really is a need to support your local food pantries.”
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Attendees are asked to bring non-perishable food items or cash donations for the pantries. Those who can’t attend the Holiday Train stop are encouraged to visit the Facebook pages of each Portage pantry to learn how to volunteer or arrange donations, leaders said.
“You could also stop in, at any time, to get educated,” Pionke said of the need for more volunteers. “We’re always looking for people to (work) the shelves or to put together food boxes; there are many ways to help.”
Portage Food Pantry Chairman Charles Bradley said the Holiday Train “gives the community a time to rejoice together” — a holiday tradition that has involved Portage since 2001. “I’m especially proud of how the community helps out every year and how the (Portage Area) Chamber puts it all together, because it’s a lot of work.”
In addition to live music, Wednesday’s visitors may also enjoy hot chocolate and cookies as supplies last, courtesy of the Portage Rotary. Visitors may also get a tour of a Portage Fire Department truck.
“Even on a Wednesday, I think we’ll still manage to get people there, because I know the people have a good time,” Bradley said of the train stop, which occurred on a Saturday last year.
According to the Holiday Train’s official website, the special train departed Montreal, Canada on Nov. 25 and finishes in Gleichen, Alberta on Dec. 18. Since 1999, it has raised more than $15.8 million CAD and 4.5 million pounds of food for North American food banks.
“It’s so cool,” said Portage Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marianne Hanson, “especially if you’re someone who likes to see the train pulling into the yard, as the horn blows and the conductor waves to you; it’s just such a great thing to see in your community.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.