Demand at emergency food shelves soars, including in the suburbs

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“I write with a heavy heart,” begins Cathy Maes in an email to colleagues describing what she calls a record-breaking and unprecedented demand for emergency food this holiday season.

As executive director of ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka, she knows only too well the dramatic increase in the numbers of hungry people coming to her organization for peanut butter and meat, bread and vegetables to help feed their families.

“We’re seeing so many people unemployed, underemployed or whose unemployment has run out,” said Maes. “People don’t think of the western suburbs as being in this great of need.”
That’s why last week, this representative of a non-profit that’s been delivering social services for almost 40 years wrote executives at Hunger Solutions Minnesota, United Way and Second Harvest.

She wanted to tell them, she says, “…the need has extended far beyond what we ever thought.”






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Skyrocketing need is a common story at emergency food shelves all over the state right now. Visits to emergency food shelves are up 11 percent for the first eight months of the year compared to last year, the most recent numbers available. In the nine-county metro area the increase is even sharper at 13 percent from January through August, comparing 2009 to 2010. 

That translates into 1.8 million visits to emergency food shelves by Minnesotans since January. On the local level, it means, for instance, that Neighborhood House in St. Paul served 1,000 more people this October than last, and Golden Valley-based PRISM is helping feed 40 percent more families than last year.

Struggling to keep up with demand
The need is so great, says Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a hunger relief organization, that some emergency food shelves this year aren’t planning on handing out holiday baskets because they are struggling to keep up with daily demands to put food on the table. Hunger Solutions works with food shelves and America’s Second Harvest food banks.

Further, some food shelves must restrict times people can come for food or give out less product to spread the food further, Moriarty said from her St. Paul office. For the years 2007 to 2209, the U.S. Department of Agriculture figured 10.5 percent of Minnesotans were struggling with hunger, but a new Gallup survey shows that the number of Minnesotans short on food is now about 14 percent, Moriarty said.

And nobody knows that better than emergency food shelf workers who see the faces of hunger.

“We’re seeing record numbers of new families, people who’ve never used a food shelf before,” stressed Elizabeth Johnson, executive director of Golden Valley-based PRISM (People Responding in Social Ministry), a non-profit social service agency helping feed five Minneapolis suburban communities.

One woman asking for help told Johnson she feels like she’s living in a different country than she was two years ago when she was employed and had health care.

“I think that a part of what we’re seeing, there’s a sense of hopelessness and stress,” Johnson said, particularly among jobless people in their 50s and 60s who feel even if they do go back to work, they’ll never make the living they used to make. “What can you say to them?”
 
With that 40 percent rise in food requests this year, PRISM is now serving 600 families a month despite a downward slide in donations. People who used to donate $1,000 now donate $300, a foundation that regularly gave $10,000, now gives PRISM $2,000, Johnson said.

Many of the people she sees are shocked to find themselves asking for help, says ICA case manager Pat Gau. “They are used to being on the giving end. They can’t believe they’re here. They’ve never accessed food support, or Hennepin County or welfare,” Gau said.
 
Covering Minnetonka, Hopkins, Shorewood, Excelsior, Woodland, Greenwood and Deep Haven, ICA served 400 households monthly in 2008, but 650 this year.

The jump means a household of four needing food must wait two weeks before coming in for a 15-minute appointment to receive 50 pounds of canned goods, fresh meat and produce.

“It’s a scheduling issue,” Maes said. There weren’t enough hours in their days.

But that’s changing, since Minnetonka city officials approved longer hours and Saturday openings for the food shelf, based in a residential neighborhood. Further, they’ll soon open a third food distribution site, with the first month rent-free.

On the St. Paul side of the Twin Cities, at Ralph Reeder Food Shelf in New Brighton, staff and volunteers helped bag groceries for 100 more families this November compared to last.

“We went through about 50,000 pounds of food in November,” said Lisa Baker, supervisor of the program.

So far they haven’t had to turn away anyone seeking food. “Right now donations are picking up,” she said, welcoming gifts of non-perishable food, checks or cash.

Getting the word out

Some offers of help are grassroots.

A small group of charity-minded Excelsior neighbors is getting the word out about the rising tide of need at ICA and planning a fundraiser for Dec. 19. Details will be available on the ICA website as plans are firmed up.

The idea to do something surfaced at family Thanksgiving dinner with Excelsior council member Mary Jo Fulkerson and husband Tom. They were discussing the economy and realizing there was need in Excelsior, “but it wasn’t really being recognized by the local community,” explains Cindy Olson, a neighbor who also signed on to the project.
 
 “The thought behind it is our neighbors need us now,” Olson says. They are joined in their effort by John Olson, Val Jones, Nick Ruehl, Andrea Fulkerson, Charlie Hernandez and Maes, ICA’s director.

Businesses, too, are helping make a difference.

Allianz Life employees on Friday will load two semi-trucks with 12 tons of food and 8 tons of clothes that they have donated through the company’s 11th annual Spirit of Giving program. They’ll form a human chain to pass thousands of boxes through the company’s halls and main lobby to send to their neighbor PRISM.

Last year Allianz’s 12 tons of food donations fed families for up to six weeks. Now, because of increased need, the same amount is expected to last half as long.

Moriarty urges people to give money directly to their local food shelves because their purchasing power is greater than an individual’s. “It turns into a lot more product than buying retail,” she said.