Between hunger and a hard place: Food shelves face recession challenges

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Tough as times are, it’s harder than ever on the financially challenged. They’d have a harder time still without food shelves. Accordingly, Twin Cities food shelves have become a more vital resource than ever before.

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Putting it all together: Where to find food, where to donate

Food shelves are the bottom line, place of last resort to get a bag of groceries for your family. Many have rules about residence and about the number of times you can come there. Hunger Solutions Minnesota has a complete list, available on-line or by calling them at 651-486-9860.

Meals on Wheels delivers hot, meals over the lunch hour Monday through Friday to homebound, elderly and disabled individuals. More than 50 local Meals on Wheels programs serve the metro area, with volunteer drivers.

Fare for All is open to everyone, regardless of income. Participants can order either through a local distribution site on a distribution day, or by calling the Fare For All office at any time during the month (763-450-3880 or 1-800-582-4291). Food packages are delivered to a distribution site once a month. Participants can order and pick up different types of packages and any number of packages that they need. For example, the regular pack costs $17 and contains 2-3 fresh fruits, 4-5 fresh vegetables and 4-5 frozen meat items.

Food banks, such as Feeding America (formerly Second Harvest), supply food to foodshelves. Food banks get donations of money and food and then distribute food to foodshelves. Because they are larger, they can buy in large quantities for lower prices and store food until it is needed at food banks.

With the economy in recession, more people are hungry. Donations of non-perishable food (dry goods, canned goods) and of money help foodshelves to serve people in need. If you can help, contact your local food shelf or any of the organizations listed above.

The objective is to give a bag of groceries, hopefully including frozen meat, to feed a family at least a couple days. Toward that end food shelves are doing their best to keep the pantry stocked. At some, there are fewer goods to go around. At all of them, more and more people come looking for help to make it through the week.

For ways to help out in person, especially around the holidays, see Giving thanks, giving back


At Bethesda Baptist Church, between 10 and 1 any Monday, Sister Norma Booker is in her smartly appointed cubby hole of an office, manning the computer, keeping an eye on the front door and answering the phone, a congenial, multi-tasking sentinel. She’s joined by fellow parishioners Sister Dorothy Thomason, Brother Bobby Morris, and Sister Kenya Fells.

Some boxes and bags and cans of food are donated directly. The church also receives monetary donations, which they take to the supermarket. There’s also Sister Osie Hollie, from the congregation who, every week drops off lawn bags full of bread and pastry. In addition to groceries, there’s a clothing rack to get between you and the winter wind.

Bethesda Baptist’s food shelf doesn’t receive anything from Minnesota Food Share, a well-stocked resource, because BBC declined to restrict clientele to the immediate area.

If you go to 1118 South 8th Street in Minneapolis, fill out a short form and sit down, somebody will be with you in fairly short order. It might be Sister Thomason a/k/a Mama Dee, a warmhearted lady who, if you show an interest, will happily recruit you, your children and, if she thinks she can, the family pets to serving God at Bethesda Baptist. Or it might be Bobby, who has so much personality he could’ve been a a standup comedian. He’s a devout believer that you can do God’s work and have a good time while you’re at it.

“Before all the job layoffs,” says Sister Booker, “we’d see maybe fifty families in a month. Now, that number is up to 100 and 150 with the economy being so tight.” She is talking about households ranging from one to as many as eight to ten.

“Sometimes, when we run low,” she says, “there is a food drive within the church. We have members who have that as their ministry.” So the increased demand hasn’t been a setback. BBC even helps poor people meet holiday expectations that the well-heeled take for granted. Thanksgivings Day and Christmas, volunteers put together at least 50 food baskets, including a fat, name-brand turkey.

Bethesda Baptist Church runs a small operation and, at the best of times, its shelves don’t overflow. Still, Sister Booker and company have done it the last eight years and stand to keep doing it for the foreseeable future.

Up the street, at 11th Avenue and 19th Street, Community Emergency Service (CES) can do a bit more. Actually, quite a bit more. The parent organization, Augustana Lutheran Church has deeper pockets and CES is plugged into that broad network on which Bethesda Baptist Church chose to pass because of residence restrictions required by the network.

To qualify for CES services, you have to live in a given area (Franklin Ave. is the south boundary, 5th Ave. is the West boundary, the Mississippi Rivcr is the north boundary and the east boundary is 11th Ave. to Highway 94, then after Highway 94, 13th Ave.) If you do, your monthly bag is bigger. You also can get help with more than food.

Jeff Noyed, CES assistant director, who’s constantly back and forth between his office (about the size of Sister Booker’s) and the main administrative office, ticks the services off as his phone rings and someone pokes her head in the door, trying to get his attention. He relates that in addition to the food shelf, there’s transportation assistance (bus cards), utility and housing assistance as well as discretionary funds. A voicemail system enables those who don’t have their own phones to receive and retrieve messages from, say, a pay phone or a friend’s house. This can be a literal lifesaver if your phone’s been cut-off and you’re looking for work (or doing temp-work) in order to keep your lights on and, of course, avoid eviction. If you are, in fact, homeless, you certainly need a number for a prospective renter to call.

CES is also a site for Fare For All, which isn’t free but is close as one can reasonably get, with dirt-cheap prices on different meat and vegetarian packages of assorted items. This includes, for the holidays, a November package with a 12-pound turkey and a December package with 7-pound ham, each including a 3-pound chicken and both chockfull of enough trimmings to send you to Jenny Craig. In short, it’s a clearinghouse of resources for those fighting to get a leg up.

Though the doors aren’t in danger of closing, Noyed acknowledges, “We’re down 60,000 pounds from November, 2007. Also down $30,000 during the same period.”

Accordingly, your monthly food shelf allotment is going to be without, for instance, toilet paper, toothpaste and other hygiene products. But, you’ll still go home with heavy bagful of food.

When you see the kind of day Jeff Noyed puts in or at least the toll it takes – sore eyed to the point of peering at you over bags in his eyes so big they could be Samsonite luggage, his energy never flags and he always maintains an even-tempered, officiously accommodating disposition. How does he do it?

“One can see working with folks in need as a privilege or a sacrifice,” says Noyed. “I choose to look at my work as a privilege and an honor. My faith plays a big part in who I am and what I do.” You won’t find any shortage of the needful who’ll say, “Amen to that.”

From another perspective
Food shelves can be life-savers, but that doesn’t make the experience great. In fact, you might guess that the experience of being down to your last nickel and having to ask someone for help is considerably less than great for many people. Here’s one perspective from a former foodshelf user.

“2005 and 2006, I was a fairly regular foodshelf user – at least two times a month to the actual foodshelf and then one time a month to the free food/fresh produce giveaway during the summer months (months when there was no snow.)

“The last time I went to the food shelf they wanted proof of income – which, as a self-employed person is hard unless I bring in my tax returns – so that got kinda crazy….

“Someone told me i could just take in my MNCARE card but you know – I have to spend money to get to the food shelf and then to be turned away cause of wrong documentation is just too much when one has already made the decision to beg – you know but yes, I will return once I decide to copy the tax returns and hand them over to total strangers.

“Food shelves vary – some treat you like they (the workers) are personally giving you food – other shelves treat you like a human being – one food shelf used to give us food for vegetarians – this last place i went gave lots of non-nutritious items that we do not eat — lots of sugar, lots of carbohydrates, and that is frustrating. When it is nutrition one needs, and then to get ‘junk’ food is kind of disconcerting, but – beggars should not be choosy, right??”

The CES food shelf operates from 1:15 to 4:30. After that, it doubles as a women’s homeless shelter until the next morning. Then staff and volunteers get moving on their Meals on Wheels duties to deliver about 200 trays to the homebound.

CES has been around since 1971. Each year, it serves more than 15,000 clients: low-income households, single parent families, the elderly, mentally or emotionally handicapped persons and recent immigrants.

These are two of myriad Twin Cities food shelf locations in Minneapolis alone. In St. Paul, times have hit no less hard and the situation of need is the same. Hunger Solutions lists more than two dozen Minneapolis food shelves, another dozen in St. Paul, and there are others that are not on the list.

Keystone Community Services (KCS) administers food shelves in the Midway and Rice Street areas of St. Paul and in Roseville.

Christine Pulver, Basic Needs Program Director for KCS, notes, “We are seeing a high number of first-time clients at our food shelves. Many have experienced job loss or multiple losses. Employment, housing, health.” Some, she adds, “used to, themselves, donate to the food shelves. Also, a number of clients we haven’t seen in one to three years return.” Not all her news is bad. Even with times being what they are, KCS served nearly 40,000 individuals with more than a million pounds of food in 2007 and volunteers gave over 8,700 hours to the Basic Needs program.

In St. Paul as in Minneapolis, not just anyone is taken on as a volunteer. Pulver notes, “Volunteers who work at the food shelf sites primarily need to care about the people they serve. Every one of us has needed or could need this assistance and we all need to remember that. Volunteers need to be dependable; we have a lot of people to serve and we need to count on volunteers who will follow through on their commitments.”

The caring part can be catchy, even if you don’t roll up your sleeves and, as it were, get down in the trenches against this war on hunger. For instance, on November 1, internationally renowned, St. Paul-based Red House Records threw their backs into staging a benefit concert. They called it Red House Staff Night: A 25th Anniversary Benefit Supporting Keystone Community Services. Staff members Eric Peltoniemi, Jon Rodine, Mother Banjo a/k/a Ellen Stanley, Art Vandalay and Roland Trenary performed with suggested donation of $10.

Stanley, Red House publicity and promotions director, reflects, “We did [it] to celebrate Ginkgo Coffeehouse’s 15th anniversary and our 25th. And do something to benefit our Midway neighborhood.”

When you can’t leave your house, it’s a godsend that the foodshelf can come to you. Meals On Wheels doesn’t bring a whole bag of food, but they do come to your door with, like the name says, a hot meal.

Dan Sullivan, who’s been volunteering at Open Arms Minnesota in Minneapolis since 1995, finds satisfaction in being of service. “I end up the week”, he says, “knowing that I did at least one thing that was worthwhile.” He adds, “I stopped being afraid of North Minneapolis. In fact, I moved there. And I’m made aware every week of how many people in this world are really up against it.”

October 28 and 29 marked the second year that Meals On Wheels joined with metro area companies to put into effect the “Blizzard Box Blitz” (BBB). Upwards of 100 volunteers from UPS, RSP Architects, Medtronic, Thomson Reuters and 29 Meals on Wheels sites boxed 8,200 meals for some four thousand area recipients. The blitz took place at the Second Harvest Heartland Warehouse.

“Last year’s event was a fun, fast-paced, many-hands-on effort to provide [folk] something extra for a Minnesota winter.” said Nancee James of Thomson Reuters. She volunteered again “because I feel like I’m providing someone with a little peace of mind; whatever the weather brings they will know that others are still thinking of them.” Molly Kennedy Lageson, BBB Coordinator for Metro Meals on Wheels, says, “Thousands of elderly and home-bound individuals around the metro area depend on Meals on Wheels, and we need to be a reliable source of nutrition regardless of weather conditions.”

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.