Meet Utoni Ruff Feeding Clayton County for 30 years

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Utoni Ruff
Utoni Ruff, supervisor at the Clayton County Food Shelf, was recently honored for her service by the members of St. John’s Ministry, Luana and Farmersburg.

By Pam Reinig
Register Editor

Utoni Ruff sits behind a well-worn desk that most days she’s too busy to use and surveys her modest office. Located in the basement of a church that ceased holding worship services decades ago, the rented space is clean and cluttered, cozy and cramped. The office extends into a larger room with a scarred meeting table covered with stacks of mandated paperwork. The area also has a new in-floor scale (more on that later).
Behind the office are two equally crowded rooms, the largest of which is lined with shelves where like items stacked together for ease of gathering and distributing. A few carts and piles of large grocery bags complete the décor.

This crazy, chaotic and comforting place is the Clayton County Food Shelf, and it’s been Utoni’s home-away-from-home for 30 years, exactly.
“I started here October 10, 1988, as a bookkeeper,” said Utoni, “at least that was my title. I did pretty much everything, and when the woman in charge left, I became supervisor. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years.”
Prior to the Food Shelf opening in 1983, the Department of Human Services Office in Elkader addressed emergency food needs by issuing vouchers. The food shelf has had only one “home,” and that’s the space it rents from Shepherd of the Hills ministries located on the main floor of the former church. The food shelf is separate from SoH and separately governed by its own board.

Utoni was born in Osceola, a small town in south-central Iowa, and started school in Woodburn. She’s also lived in Des Moines, Traer and McGregor. She and her husband of 38 years, Bob, make their home between McGregor and Garnavillo with their 15-year-old daughter, Mackenzy.

Described by many as naturally friendly, outgoing and compassionate, Utoni often goes the extra mile for the people in need.
My cell phone number is on the front door and the answering machine,” she said. “I do get calls nights, weekend, and holidays—and that’s OK with me. I love helping people, and sometimes that means doing things outside regular hours.”

For example, she recently spent most of a weekend driving an elderly couple from one clinic to another.
“It’s not part of my job but it is part of my nature,” she said. “Besides, why wouldn’t you help someone who needs it?”
The main thrust of Utoni’s job is proving emergency food supplies to people in need. She stocks her shelves with non-perishable food items generously donated by individuals, businesses and churches. She also relies on monetary donations, fund-raisers like the annual Holiday Train, and grants like the one that enabled her to purchase the in-floor scale. Now she can push a cart onto the scale, subtract the weight of the cart, and quickly determined the weight of the food she’s distributing, which is needed for auditing purposes.

On average, the food shelf serves 84 families a month. Thanks to the generosity of the Clayton County Dairy Producers, Utoni can provide milk. Fresh produce is frequently available from gardeners who donate their surplus. Donations from deer hunters to the HUSH (Help Us Stop Hunger) program ensure the availability of fresh venison. Utoni’s first-ever non-food grant enables her to purchase and distribute items like soap, detergent and toilet paper.

Despite the generosity of so many, Utoni still has a “wish list” and at the top is more freezer space.
“Edgewood Locker has always been very good to us,” she said, “but there comes a time when they need to shut down some of their freezers to save money. So we could really use more freezer space.”
Utoni acknowledges that the work she does can be heartbreaking. Few people stay in positions like Utoni’s for long periods, citing occupational stress as a reason for moving on. But Utoni is adamant that she’s not going anywhere else anytime soon.

“I still get up every morning ready to help the next person,” she says. “I’m not retiring. In fact, there are days I feel that I’m just getting started.
The Clayton County Food Shelf, located at 100 W. Hill St., St. Olaf, is open Monday through Friday, from 9-noon and 1-4. The phone number is 563-783-7794.

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