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United Way Chili Cook-Off fundraiser returns to Westgate Mall

After a two-year hiatus, it is the return of the Lakes Area United Way’s Chili Cook-Off at the Westgate Mall in Baxter. The theme of this year's annual fundraiser is “Together Again.”

Dressed as “Bucky the deer," Heidi Anderson from Deerwood Bank samples chili during the 2014 United Way Chili Cook-Off at the Westgate Mall.
Dressed as “Bucky the deer," Heidi Anderson from Deerwood Bank samples chili during the 2014 United Way Chili Cook-Off at the Westgate Mall.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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BAXTER — Things will be heating up once again with the return of the Lakes Area United Way Chili Cook-Off at the Westgate Mall.

The annual event in Baxter kicks off the organization’s fall fundraising campaign and will take place 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, inside the mall after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic.

“This event dates back over 20 years and draws hundreds to the Westgate Mall each year,” said Jon Aga, executive director of Lakes Area United Way. “Funds raised from the event benefit Lakes Area United Way and this year's 17 nonprofit partner programs.”

Nonprofits such as the Brainerd Family YMCA, businesses like Cash Wise Liquor/Coborn’s, restaurants such as 3 Cheers Hospitality and more are among the 34 competitors in Wednesday’s cook-off, which is Lakes Area United Way’s signature event.

“We wanted to have it during October because it's the kickoff of National Chili Month,” Aga said. “It coincides with the beginning of our fall fundraising campaign where we go around and really generate support and raise money and engage the community in the work that we do.”

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United Way supports community initiatives that improve access to educational opportunities, according to its website. It administers Imagination Library, a book-gifting program for children that has the goal of increasing early childhood literacy.

“It's a good way to not only raise funds but then kind of share what we've been up to and what we've been about as we start to go out and interact with the community again every fall,” Aga said of the Lakes Area United Way Chili Cook-Off, which has the goal of raising $225,000.

The cost is $10 per person at the door for all-you-can-taste chili, a ballot to cast for favorite “Community Choice” chili, dessert sponsored by CTC and the chance to learn about and support the Lakes Area United Way and its partner programs.

“This will be the first time in two years that we've done it,” Aga said of Wednesday’s chili cook-off. “The last time was our 50-year celebration, and we celebrated our name change last time and so this year is really about coming together again.”

Lakes Area United Way was formerly known as United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties. Its partner agencies serve those in Crow Wing, Cass and Aitkin counties by providing meals to the hungry, shelter to the homeless and meeting the basic needs of families.

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“Most of our fundraising is through payroll deduction campaigns. Large employers typically allow employees to give throughout the year by just deducting from their paychecks,” Aga said.

Brainerd Family YMCA, Cash Wise Liquor/Coborn’s and 3 Cheers Hospitality are the defending champions in their respective chili cook-off categories of nonprofits, businesses and restaurants, and they will compete again in this year’s fundraiser.

“It's $100 for just a booth registration and then they can purchase higher sponsorships to be either closer to the stage and get some more marketing benefit,” Aga said of the chili-providing competitors.

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The number of registered competitors this year is on par with previous years.

“We do have prizes for best-decorated booth and then best costumes as well,” Aga said. “All the booths, we encourage them to decorate and get dressed up and really get into the spirit of having fun.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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