Erin Waldhart recalls a woman who already had received her monthly allotment from the WAFER food pantry in La Crosse but returned seeking a bit more — because she had fed some of her rations to her beloved pet.

Such a sacrifice won’t be necessary, because Hillside Animal Hospital personnel dropped just over 2 tons of nearly every type of pet food under the sun at WAFER on Thursday to climax its seventh year of collecting grub for old Sheps and Tabbies.

“I’ve had people come in — one woman came back even though she’d been in that month because she was out of food,” said Waldhart, director of the food pantry at 403 Causeway Blvd. in La Crosse.

“For some, I think it’s easier to be hungry than look at a loved pet that is hungry,” she said.

“This is the perfect time for this to come in,” she said, noting that the Hillside contribution will last for several months.

In addition, a donor chipped in money so that WAFER has been able to have pet victuals on hand for most of the year, Waldhart said.

In a country where people spend more than $23 billion a year on food for pets — ranging from alpacas to wallabies — nearly 50 million people rely on food pantries for most of their meals.

In La Crosse County, more than 14,000 children experience food insecurity, and almost 1,600 families a month get food from WAFER. The nonprofit agency also hosts monthly Food Fairs, in cooperation with Channel One Foodbank in Rochester, Minn., such as one Wednesday night that attracted several hundred families trying to fill their emptying shelves with cereal, vegetables, apples, breads, baking supplies, meats and other fixings for the holidays.

The recipients are grateful for whatever they can glean, such as an older woman who rejoiced that she now will have candy bars to put in a granddaughter’s stocking on Christmas Day and couples excited that they would be able to provide good meals and treats this weekend.

Many pets in the Coulee Region also will have full bowls because of the food drive at Hillside Animal Hospital at W5706 Hwy. 33.

The annual collection began when a hospital client affiliated with WAFER mentioned such a need to Dr. Robert Spencer, who founded Hillside in 1974.

“We were looking for a service project at the time, and this is something that our clients, suppliers and staff are excited about,” Spencer said has he helped unload the food at WAFER.

Now pet owners begin inquiring even during the summer when the collection will start, he said. Some bring in food, while others buy food at reduced prices from the clinic to be donated.

“We try to make it as easy as possible,” said Michelle Hemp, Hillside’s practice manager. “It has grown so much from the first year. We collected 600 pounds the first year, and now it’s more than 4,000.

“You should have seen our lobby this morning,” she said, adding, “It was almost to the ceiling.”

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