Surrounded by kitchen-cupboard staples like pasta, beans and rice, Rick Martineau of the Senior Food Shelf held up a can of vegetable soup and showed it off to Maria, 68.
“No!” said Maria, a limited English speaker who moved to Minneapolis from Ecuador nearly 10 years ago.
Martineau, the food shelf’s stock clerk of 17 years, tried again to pinpoint Maria’s fancy.
“No!” she said to the can of tomato soup.
Cream of mushroom?
Cream of chicken?
“Yes,” she said, her face at last lighting up with a smile. “Si!”
HOW TO HELP
Senior Food Shelf
Groveland Emergency Food Shelf
By visiting the Find Your Food Shelf section on Hunger Solution’s website, you can type in your zip code or county and get the contact information for all the food shelves nearby
This Northeast Minneapolis food shelf is one of more than 30 located in Hennepin County, although it’s the only one specifically dedicated to serving seniors. Like an increasing number of food shelves, it operates on a “client-choice” model, in which people choose what they take home instead being given a predetermined bag of food.
Also like other food shelves across the state and country, this one has recently seen a marked increase in the number of clients seeking its help.
A report released in November by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that in 2008, nearly 14.6 percent of American households were “food insecure.” This means that at some point during the year, the households had difficulty providing enough nutritious food for all their members.
This marks an increase in food insecurity from 2007, when 11.1 percent of American households fit into the category. It’s also the highest rate seen since the survey was first administered in 1995.
Staff at Hunger Solutions, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that works with Minnesota food shelves, said that when compared to national averages, Minnesota has a lower prevalence of food-insecure households.
But the number of hungry people in Minnesota is nonetheless growing, as is the number of those who resort to using food shelves, which generally provide clients with once-a-month allotments of three to five days worth of food, Executive Director Colleen Moriarty said.
During the first six months of 2009, visits to food shelves across Minnesota increased 26 percent compared to the same time period in 2008. In the metro area, food shelf visits increased even more, by 43 percent, according to data compiled by Hunger Solutions.
And seniors like Maria are part of another eye-opening statistic: This year has seen a 53 percent increase in people age 60 or older using Minnesota’s food shelves, Moriarty said.
“The economy particularly hits people hard who are living on a fixed income, and there has been no cost of living increase for Social Security,” Moriarty said. “So people find themselves in the position where they have to, as we say, ‘heat or eat.'”
Back at the Senior Food Shelf, coordinator Karen Carlson ducked out of the bustling stock room, where Martineau and his helpers tended to waiting clients clutching numbers, and into her office. She quickly cleared several empty produce boxes off the table before sitting down to chat.
The food shelf usually serves an average 470 people a month, but this November they served 550, she said. They also signed up 19 new people for services in November, nearly double the number seen the month before.
“Part of it’s the holidays, people want to have that extra food. But other than that, we’re seeing a lot more low-income seniors,” Carlson said. “We have seniors living on $400 a month, and they have to pay all their bills with that and get food.”
Carlson said many seniors lost their retirement investments with the economic collapse.
“They can’t make it,” she said, “so they come to our food shelf to get help.”
Dealing with demand
Located in the basement of the Plymouth Congregational Church near the intersection of Franklin and Nicollet avenues, the Groveland Emergency Food Shelf is a cavernous space stuffed with fresh, frozen and canned food, household supplies and free clothing.
Like the Senior Food Shelf, Groveland is a client-choice operation, and its four part-time staffers and volunteers, who number nearly 100, recently decorated the “shopping” area with Christmas wreaths and other holiday décor.
Executive Director Dave Enghusen said their client base has nearly doubled from what it was two years ago. Today they serve between 1,300 and 1,400 people per month through their regular neighborhood program, and an additional 200 people each month through their homeless youth program.
Enghusen said keeping up with the demand has been “tricky.”
“I have to buy more when I see deals, so as you can see, we have stuff everywhere, and we squirrel it away where we can,” he said.
To save money, they sometimes cut back on part-time employees’ hours and rely more on volunteer help, he said. Their conversion to the client-choice model two years ago has also helped them save on costs, as clients now take only what they want and leave the rest behind for someone else, he said.
Like the Senior Food Shelf, Groveland follows a once-a-month guideline for regular visits, and allows clients three extra emergency visits a year, he said.
“But as things have gotten more desperate, we’re not really enforcing that,” Enghusen said. “We try to keep it down to a couple times a month, just so we have enough food.”
Filling in the gaps
Those who want to donate to a food shelf this holiday season may not know whether it’s better to give food or cut a check.
Jill Hiebert, communications manager of Hunger Solutions, said giving money is the best way to go, as food shelves have the bulk buying power to stretch a dollar further than any individual consumer.
“A good way to think of it is if you donate one dollar, a food shelf can access nine dollars (worth of food) at retail prices,” Hiebert said.
Because food shelves don’t have funds to buy personal hygiene products like toilet paper, toothpaste and deodorant, or to buy pet food, Martineau said these also make much-appreciated donations.
Enghusen said he doesn’t like to turn away regular food donations, especially from children.
“They like to see that they’re helping,” he said. “And the variety that we can get is not unlimited; we can get all sorts of green beans and peas and low-end soups and things, so the food donations that do come in kind of bring some variety and fun for the people – like pickles, and other things they don’t normally get.”
A good rule of thumb for people looking to donate this holiday season is to call the food shelf in their neighborhood and find out what they most need, whether that’s cereal, shaving cream or cold hard cash.
As it was nearly overflowing with big bags of carrots and canned soups on a recent afternoon, Groveland didn’t particularly need any more of those items, client representative Del Slagle said.
But what’s most important this season, Enghusen said, is not what, how or where people give, but just that they do.
“People are hurting, but they’re muddling through and they’re helping each other,” he said.
“There’s a lot of need out there, whether it be for food, for housing, or for whatever,” he added. “And you gain so much by helping.”