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Demand at emergency food shelves soars, including in the suburbs

“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.”

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.

Coming up: The next Community Sketchbook tells the story of a middle-class Minnesota man who never thought he’d be getting his groceries from an emergency food shelf.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/09/2010 - 10:28 am.

    There are more effective ways of dealing with this growing problem. Greater government support with a offsetting payment from the estate tax. This was done seriously 3 years ago and we all (grocers, delivery truckers, families etc. etc.) would all be better off. I would like to introduce our readers to one of he new leaders of the Tea Party, Jim DeMint from South Carolina who is promoting the idea that unemployment insurance payments should not exist as they currently do and should instead be high interest bearing loans so families will never have the ability to get back on their feet. Perhaps food riots will break out here in the Divided States of America just as they about to break out even more violently in the third world Haiti and Pakistan currently. There is not a need for a food shortage for a food riot to exist just the perception of a food shortage and the subsequent hoarding and run on the food places.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/09/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    I fear that the next two years (at least) will bring ever more stress to those of us who need food and/or housing help, thanks to Jim DeMint and his compadres.

    One of the saddest things I’ve heard recently was a morning C-Span call from a long-term-unemployed, hungry man with obvious fear and distress in his voice.

    After detailing his considerable troubles, he said the government just had to do more. It had to stop beating up on business and give it some tax breaks so it could create jobs; it had to renew the tax cuts for the wealthy so they could heal the economy as that money trickled down; it should stop taking money from the risk takers and giving it to those who refused to work in the form of unemployment compensation.

    How can people be educated to see that they harm themselves grievously by falling for this right-wing propaganda and supporting politicians who are bent on transferring to the rich what little “wealth” the poor and middle classes have left?

  3. Submitted by Lance Groth on 12/09/2010 - 04:41 pm.

    Well, Bernice, you have to hand it to the right. They’ve been marvelously effective in peddling ideas that are directly harmful to the poor and middle class. They’ve peddled those ideas to those very people, large numbers of whom have cheered and voted repub and said “thank you, sir, can I have another?”, even while their world disintegrates around them. Think about it – the tax cuts for the rich, the bankster bailouts; these were the biggest heists of wealth from the lower classes to the rich and powerful in history, and it was brash and brazen, done in full daylight. And now Obama wants to hand the rich even more. I marvel at how well the plan has been executed.

    The repubs are disciplined, determined, and relentless. They do not compromise. The dems are disorganized, dispirited, in full retreat, and largely leaderless. A small organized force with a tight plan can defeat a large, disorganized force every time.

    Obama seems to have no bedrock convictions that are important enough to him go to the mat over. He should have called the repub bluff on the tax plan, let taxes go up, let unemployment expire, and made damn sure that everyone understood that this happened because the repubs were all about protecting the rich. There would have been pain in the short term, but he would have won long term. Instead, he caved. As several have said recently, when a hostage taker demands a plane, you don’t give him the fraking plane. Obama gave them the plane. Carville’s joke about Hillary making an organ donation to Obama was dead on.

    Dems have had 10 years to learn these lessons at the hands of the repubs, and they have not. Until they do, the repub message will continue to win.

  4. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 12/09/2010 - 06:43 pm.

    This is indeed a very sad and immediate problem for many Minnesotans. I work in the nonprofit sector and certainly understand that there is only so much that donors can do each year. Although there is talk of the recession coming to an end, I really haven’t seen seen any real proof of that, and this article pretty much confirms my conclusion. Yes, politicians have been self-serving and ignorant voters continue to vote against their own self interests. We should hold politicians accountable at the next election, but this problem is NOW for many people. We need to do better as a society for sure, but we also need to dig a little deeper to support these food shelves this year.

  5. Submitted by Katherine Werner on 12/15/2010 - 11:27 am.

    Again, an effective albiet small way to address this issue is for TC United Way to reinstate its successful, modestly-funded Hunger Program which I managed until they abruptly terminated it in Dec 2008, just as local food shelf use began to increase. Food shelves were directly supported with hundreds food and fund drives organized by this grassroots effort to the tune of @400,000 lbs of food, some to ICA. Food shelves need cash donations first so they can buy milk, produce and meat, items citizens cannot donate. Buying from wholesale sources, they can double those donated dollars. If anyone wants help organizing such a drive, please contact me. I have plenty of free time as I continue to look for work after United Way laid me off – 2 years ago this week.

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