Minneapolis food shelves lay bare

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At the end of a long hallway at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a small room is lined with shelves and a commercial refrigerator. On the shelves, cans of lima beans sit aside boxes of mac’n’cheese and plastic bags of East Indian spices.

Every day when the food shelf closes, the metal shelves are bare. The next morning, workers restock them again from a diminishing supply across the hallway.

Food shelves have seen a 14 percent increase in visits during the first half of 2008, according to data from Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide hunger relief agency.

Since July, when Becky Burand took over responsibility for the Brian Coyle food shelf, she’s seen monthly increases in demand.

“September was something like 300 people, October was 400,” she said. “We are seeing two or three new families every day.”

At the same time as demand has increased, donations of money and food to food shelves have slackened, she said.

“It’s mostly middle-class people who donate, it’s not the people with tons of money who are giving money to food shelves.” she said. “It’s also the middle class that’s really suffering right now.”

Each visitor to the Brian Coyle food shelf, which serves the predominately East African neighborhood, is typically allowed 15 pounds of food per month.

“[That] works for individuals, but there’s quite a few families of seven, eight, 10, who don’t end up with their total pounds of food just because we don’t have the capacity to give them that a month,” Burand said.

Paullette Meyers , a Riverside Plaza resident who visited the food shelf Tuesday, said she has noticed the increased demand.

“Every time I do come,” she said, “it seems like it’s halfway depleted of things that are worthwhile in coming and getting.”

Meyers said the food shelf allows her to tide herself over until other food or money sources arise.

“I appreciate the fact of being able to come here and to get what little I can get,” she said. “You have to be thankful for what you’ve got.”

Meyers took out her full monthly allotment from the food shelf Tuesday.

“Not having any money for food, [I’m] down to my last, very last,” she said. “After this I don’t know where I’ll get food from.”

Jill Hiebert , communications manager for Hunger Solutions, said increases in demand can be attributed to rising unemployment and increased food costs.

“Your dollar goes a lot less far in the grocery store,” she said. “Once that flexible part of your budget is run out, then you can turn to food shelves.”

Between 2000 and 2007, food shelves in Minnesota saw demand increase by 67 percent, Hiebert said.

“All indication is, as we speak to food shelves, that more people are coming in,” she said. “In some cases they’re getting less food because the food shelves have access to less.”

Hunger relief is a popular focus around the holidays, Burand said, but for every dollar donated to a food shelf, the food shelf can purchase around $10 worth of food.

“While food drives are great and it’s a wonderful way to make a difference in the community,” she said, “financial contributions really allow us to stretch our dollars.”

According to information collected by the U.S Department of Agriculture, almost 10 percent of Minnesotans struggle with hunger.

Cutting across demographic lines, more than 47 percent of households visiting food banks had at least one person employed, while at least half had children, according to a 2006 study by Second Harvest Heartland , a regional food bank.

These households often struggle with the decision of whether to buy food or pay other basic needs like rent or medical bills, according to the report.

The downturn in the economy, Burand said, has forced many middle-class people to make similarly difficult decisions about how to feed their families.

“A lot of people are needing to turn to food shelves to make ends meet,” Burand said. “People who used to donate to us are now the ones coming in and using the food shelves.”