The young mother had lost her job and was unable to come up with money to pay the rent. In desperation she called Neighborhood House on St. Paul’s West Side. Not only did she receive the financial assistance she needed, she was also connected to other resources that would help her family, including access to the food shelf and other programs within the community.
Cindi Yang, the Basic Needs Manager at Neighborhood House, said that 16 percent more households used the food shelf at Neighborhood House in July 2009 than in July 2008. “Half of the individuals we serve are children between the ages of birth and 18 years old,” Yang said. She said the number of first-time users of the food shelf is up, and that the average family using the food shelf comes three times a year.
Hunger Solutions Minnesota report on child hunger
That increase is consistent with a July report by Hunger Solutions Minnesota (HSM). This is the second volume of Keeping Food on the Table, a quarterly HSM review that tracks the state of hunger in Minnesota. The July issue focuses on the nutrition safety net programs that have been put in place to relieve child hunger.
During the first quarter of 2009, there was a record year-to-date increase in visits to food shelves in Minnesota, with 613,344 visits recorded for an overall increase of 28 percent over 2008 figures. Child visits were up from 191,756 in the first quarter of 2008 to 233,652 in 2009.
The report stated,“ The recession, high food costs and 8.2 percent unemployment are factors that increase food insecurity in Minnesota. ” (Food insecurity is defined as lack of access to affordable food). According to the report, “These factors continue to take a toll on low-income Minnesota families and their ability to provide nourishing meals to their children. ”
Along with increasing food shelf use, there has been a 6.2 percent increase in the number of welfare caseloads in the past year.
Neighborhood House: one safety-net program
The food shelf at Neighborhood House is one of those safety-net programs. It is the largest single-site food shelf in Ramsey County .
”Even as needs have increased, budget cuts led to the layoff of two full time employees at the beginning of 2009,” said Yang. With the smaller number of employees, “this spring we turned away 40 percent of the callers because we had no capacity to serve folks.”
A temporary fix is helping for now. A grant from the Pohlad Foundation is funding two full-time positions for the six months that began in July.
With children home from school and not receiving the free or reduced school breakfasts and lunches, Yang said, “The needs are greater during the summer months.”
One way that need is being met is through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program that provides meals to children 18 and under at recreation centers and summer school programs throughout the country.
The El Rio Vista Recreation Center is located in the Wellstone Center in the same complex as Neighborhood House. During the week of August 3, Neighborhood House and El Rio Vista Recreation Center together provided a total of 863 free meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – to youth through that program.
Fresh produce at the food shelf
A unique aspect of the Neighborhood House food shelf is fresh produce donated by the St. Paul Farmers Market. Each week, Neighborhood House staff go to the market and ask farmers for donations of fresh produce. Many of the Hmong farmers once used the food shelf themselves and they donate generously. In July, more than 800 households were served.
“We gave away over 16 pounds [of produce] per person,” Yang said. “Our number of households is really increasing, and our number of pounds is increasing as well.“
The food shelf features “ culturally specific” foods, reflecting the Asian, mainly Hmong and Karen, Latino, and African families who come. Spanish, Hmong, Thai and Karen speaking staff members are on hand to ease the language barrier Families select the food they want and know how to prepare resulting in very little waste, according to Yang.
In addition to the food shelf, the Fare for All program is offered year-round . Yang said, “ It is a really successful program.” Families can purchase nutritious foods and save 40 to 50 percent over traditional supermarket prices.
Hunger relief in Minnesota
“ The need for hunger relief in Minnesota is critical. The increase in child hunger is one of the economic benchmarks that drives HSM to increase access to safety-net nutrition programs like Food Support and the Summer Food Service Program,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of HSM. “ Food Support and other programs help to lift children and their families out of poverty.”
This fall the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act will be up for a vote before the US Congress. In the report, HSM provides an overview and recommendations to Congress It reads, in part,“ While Federal food programs are efficient, nutrition programs need to be improved to keep pace with the increase in child poverty, food inflation, the cost of delivering services and updated technology.”
Mary Thoemke (email email@example.com), a lifelong resident of Saint Paul, is a free lance writer for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
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