Hungry for help


Michelle Reagan is more often hearing a familiar refrain from her clients: “I’ve been giving to all of your drives for years and I never thought I’d have to be here.”

Reagan, director of Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, said the elderly, disabled and working poor will always be food shelf users, but in the last few years, middle class families are increasingly showing up for help. “These are the people who could be any one of us. All of us are just a few paychecks away from being in this situation,” she said.”

In the 10 years she’s been working at the location, the number of those needing assistance has increased from 3,000 to 13,000 people. “The need is out there,” she said.

Food shelf use has increased 60 percent since 2000, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a hunger relief organization providing assistance to food shelves. The number of those needing help from food shelves is only going to grow as the economy continues to show signs of souring, Executive Director Colleen Moriarty told the House Housing Policy and Finance and Public Health Finance Division March 5. “Food has become a luxury.”

Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) sponsors HF3988, which would appropriate $1.6 million for 2009 to state assisted food shelves.

The House Housing Policy and Finance and Public Health Finance Division approved the measure March 14. It now awaits action in the House Finance Committee. A companion bill, SF3676, sponsored by Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

“If the state has any responsibility, the fundamental responsibility is seeing children are not hungry in the state of Minnesota and their families,” he said. However, since the state began sponsoring food programs in 1998, there has been no increase in appropriations. Because food costs are escalating rapidly it not only affects the poor, but the organizations that attempt to fill this food gap. It is estimated that 10 percent of the state’s children live in poverty and one-third qualify for free and reduced lunches at public schools.

“Cleary the economic times are having a significant effect on the usage,” said Rep. Rob Eastlund (R-Isanti). There is a tension of what nonprofits and government provide in programs. When government gives more money, the pressure is taken off local nonprofits and the community to provide, he said. “This is an area where people are truly best served when the communities they live in step up to the plate and provide those needs.”

Food shelves distributed about 42 million pounds of food last year, said Connie Greer, self-sufficiency program director with the Human Services Department. Of that, the department provided $1.3 million for food assistance, and distributed about 5 million pounds of food from the emergency food assistance program. “The local organizations make up the balance of that, up to this 42 million pounds of food, so there’s this tremendous contribution already from the local level,” she said.

Eastlund asked if food shelves look at resources such as bread companies that have day-old bread or grocery stores with produce that doesn’t get used.

Many food shelves work with America’s Second Harvest Food Banks, of which there are five network members in Minnesota: Crookston, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Rochester and St. Paul. A Fargo member network serves one Minnesota county. Part of its collection involves food recovery. Also, the Emergency Food Shelf Network: Minnesota’s Free Food Bank works with restaurants to pick up food that can be distributed to food shelves and shelters, Moriarty said.

More frequently there are fewer food products available from grocery stores and food processing plants because of technological advances. In years past when a company had a bad run and mislabeled jars of food or boxes of cereal, food shelves would benefit, she said.

Much of that product has also been shifted to dollar stores instead of being donated. Many food shelves are only open a few days a week now because they don’t have enough food to distribute. The need continues to build resulting in less opportunity for food. If the state does nothing, “what we’d have is the return to long lines at meal programs and soup kitchens in our community like we’ve seen before in history,” Moriarty said. We don’t want to return to the soup kitchen era, she said. “They are us, they are no strangers.”

Food Shelf Facts

• 55 percent of families that rely on food shelf assistance are working, but cannot make ends meet.

• Since the establishment of the state food shelf program in 1998, there has been no increase in funding.

• In 2007, the 300 Minnesota food shelves were visited 1.9 million times and they provided 47 million pounds of food to families and seniors.

• Between 2000-2007, food shelf visits in Minnesota increased from 1.2 million to 1.9 million.

• Food shelf usage has increased 60 percent since 2000.

• People who use food shelves average six visits a year, nearly 40 percent only once or twice a year.

• 85 percent of families using food shelves fall below the federal poverty guidelines.

• 11 percent of children served in Minnesota’s food shelves are forced to skip meals because there is not enough food in the home.

• 20 percent of people visiting food shelves are seniors.

(Statistics provided by Hunter Solutions of Minnesota)