Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Tables are turned for recent visitors to food shelves

The Friends in Need Food Shelf is seeing a lot of middle-class families from St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Newport. They’re “people who say they have given to us for years, and now they are needing us,” said director Michelle Rageth.

The Friends in Need Food Shelf is seeing a lot of middle-class families from St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Newport.

They’re “people who say they have given to us for years, and now they are needing us,” said director Michelle Rageth. “They have mortgages and car payments. We are seeing a lot of people who are not your typical food-shelf person.”

Rageth was among about 100 people who attended last week’s Hunger Solutions Minnesota‘s resource fair at St. Paul’s Como Lakeside Pavilion. Food-shelf use is up 60 percent since 2000, organizers said.

Hunger Solutions gave MinnPost a table at the event, an opportunity for participants to come and talk, even pitch a story if they wanted. It was called media “speed dating.” Rageth dropped by to tell her story.

By budget measures, her organization is tiny. It gets free rent and utilities from Marathon Petroleum. (It raised $172,616 in 2006, according to state reports.)

Two Lions Club chapters have been big donors, but their donations have taken a recent hit. Rageth said the clubs lost some of their charitable gambling sites when restaurants and a bingo hall closed. Their donations dropped from around $15,000 a year each to $5,000 to $6,000 apiece.

“Right now I am writing more grants than ever,” Rageth said.

Making adjustments

Business was slow at my back-corner table. More wallflower than speed dater, I started wandering around looking for interviews.

At the Second Harvest Heartland booth, Lori Johnson, director of programs, told me the food bank had begun a new outreach program, a stopgap to meet growing needs.

Second Harvest teams up with community organizations in underserved neighborhoods. The partner scouts out a location and drums up volunteers, and Second Harvest brings the food, trains volunteers and does the paperwork.

The food inventory is more limited than a typical food shelf. Second Harvest brings in the best of what’s available, which includes items with a short shelf life and surplus.

“It may be breakfast cereal, crackers, pickles, laundry detergent, shampoo,” Johnson said. It is not as nutritional as a food shelf, “but it is a way to bridge the gap until they can get to those other sources.”

Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Dean Weigel said among his challenges was a menu balancing act, trying to make meals both tasty and nutritious.

Loaves & Fishes volunteers — religious, civic or business groups — serve 1,500 hot meals every weekday at eight metro locations after buying and preparing the food themselves. But two years ago, University of Minnesota nutrition experts analyzed meals and found them high in sugar, fat and calories.

Loaves & Fishes began encouraging healthier menus. Weigel recalled standing near the trash can at St. Paul’s Dorothy Day Center one day when the meal included vegetable stew and yogurt.

“A ton of food got thrown away,” he said. “We backed off in being tyrants about it and said, ‘OK, let’s mix it in. Let’s bring in fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. Let’s bring in raisins instead of chocolate chip cookies.’ “

One bright spot on the horizon is an anticipated government commodities boost, said John Wollum, director of procurement and distribution for Hunger Solutions. (The state contracts with Hunger Solutions to distribute commodities to food shelves and other agencies.)

Minnesota should see, he said, a big increase in “bonus food” — commodities available because of crop surpluses or market conditions. The state expects to receive approximately 60 truckloads of bonus food late this year, up from the typical 15 truckloads.

At 40,000 pounds of food per truck, that adds up to an extra 1.8 million pounds of canned fruit, canned vegetables, pork patties and more. (A food-shelf visitor receives on average 25 pounds of food, so that’s enough food for about 72,000 visits.)

McGovern’s idea to feed more kids worldwide
Former presidential candidate George McGovern of South Dakota, who spoke at a rally following the resource fair, plugged an international effort to feed more kids.

“If we had one month for the cost of the war in Iraq, we could run a worldwide school lunch program,” he said. “And the world might be more peaceful. It might even have less terrorism in it than you can achieve by sending our army to complicated places like Iraq.”

State Rep. John Benson, D-Minnetonka, also spoke. During a tough 2008 session, Benson carried a bill that increased state food-shelf funding by $519,000. It wasn’t the $1.5 million he sought. Still, it was the first funding increase in about a dozen years.

In an interview, Benson said many legislators assume charitable organizations can handle the problem.

“This is way beyond their capacity,” he said. “If we have to cut ethanol subsidies, or JOBZ, or something else … to feed hungry children that is what ought to be done.”

Seeking summer food providers
Postscript for nonprofits seeking to feed more kids during the summer: Contact Jeanette Butcher, summer food service program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Her program works with schools, parks or nonprofits during the summer to provide meals in areas where at least half the kids are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches. This year, the program had 78 sponsors and 370 sites statewide. Still, it doesn’t reach nearly the numbers served during the school year, and Butcher is looking for more partners next summer.

Congress simplified the rules this year. For every lunch served, sponsors get $3.04 to help cover food and labor costs, Butcher said. She can be reached at 651-582-8543 or email her here.