Rotary Lights donations keeps pantry shelves stocked

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - While the holiday season is over, the holiday spirit continues to keep people in the La Crosse area from going hungry.

The annual Rotary Lights display collects food items, which are now filling the shelves of area pantries.

In 2016, Rotary Lights collected more than 300,000 food items, both right at the light display in Riverside Park and in conjunction with outside food drives.

While News 8 is still waiting to hear on final numbers for 2017, last week organizers said the most recent display was the best they've seen in terms of both visitors and donations, amounting to enough food to help stock 14 area food pantries.

The Rotary Lights collection period lasts about eight to 10 weeks each year.

"People are out in the holiday spirit looking at pretty lights, what better way, an easy way to help the community at the same time,” said Shelly Fortner, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse.

Now that the four million lights that make up the Rotary Lights Display are being taken down, the significantly less colorful Riverside Park may make it seem like La Crosse has nothing to show for it.

But you'll find the fruits of Rotary Lights at food banks and pantries such as WAFER in boxes and boxes of donations.

"I've said it before and I'll keep saying it. Our community is super generous,” WAFER executive director Erin Waldhart said.

She said the just more than 20,000 pounds of donations will last four to six weeks and help feed the about 1,500 families who come by each month.

"So there's a flip side of a great donation, and it’s that getting it on the shelves so people can take it home,” Waldhart said. “It requires a lot of manpower."

Rotary Lights events provided plenty of food to sort through at La Crosse's Hunger Task Force as well.

"When you really think, it puts you in awe,” Fortner said.

The food bank receives donations from any drives Rotary Lights is involved with outside the park, and it passes the food along to more than 90 area food programs.

"There's such a great need now,” Fortner said, adding that donations are especially important for families this time of year.

"They're trying to keep warm, paying utility bills, and paying rent. They've got Christmas to think of for their families. Sometimes food takes the back seat,” she said. “Having a holiday food drive is the perfect time of year to get people in the giving spirit and help families.”

"It's an incredible amount of food that is brought in a short period of time, and I think that just speaks about the kind of community we live in,” Waldhart said.

Both WAFER and the Hunger Task Force are hoping for more volunteers this season to help them sort through all the donations.

Volunteers are still taking down the rotary lights and are looking for additional help.

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