The Rotary Lights display at Riverside Park in La Crosse is definitely a great way to get into the holiday spirit but it's a lot more than that too.

Every year it serves as a food drive for local food pantries.

And organizers say this year, the need is greater than ever.

"The shelves are really empty this time of the year,"said Salvation Army Public Relations Director Julie Nelson.

Nelson says opening night of the Rotary Lights couldn't come soon enough.

"We count on the Rotary Lights drive to help replenish our stock," said Nelson.

Nelson says this winter more people then ever are counting on local food pantries because of cuts to Wisconsin's food-stamp program.

"Even if we can help someone with a bag of groceries that is something we would really like to do," said Nelson.

Rotary Lights President Pat Stephens says all the donations are split between a number of local food pantries.

He says it will be difficult to beat last year's total of more than 230,000 food items collected because the display will be open fewer days.

"Keep asking people to be extra generous this year. It's the shortest calendar, we have only 33 nights of operation starting the day after Thanksgiving," said Stephens.

"It does make us a little nervous. When you go down to Rotary Lights remember your food. You might not get there the second time the way you used to every single year," said Nelson.

But Stephens and Nelson say they're confident the community will pull through, enjoying the beautiful sights, while helping out those in need.

"We're out of some items trying to make the other times last as long as possible, so we have been looking forward to this first day of Rotary Lights," said Nelson.

Nelson says the amount of food they get from this food drive will last them about three months.

Rotary Lights will be open every night through 2013 from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The only exceptions are Christmas, when it shuts down an hour later, and New Year's Eve, when it's open late.