In struggling Frogtown, a food shelf closes

It’s tough nowadays to be a small, grassroots nonprofit that serves its community. Funders want more sophisticated organizations that can stand on their own if one funder puts its money elsewhere.

But small, grassroots non-profits are often the most successful at the bottom line: directly helping people.

Take Sharing Korner, a food shelf in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, which was run by Mary Brent, by all accounts a one-woman solution to poverty and hunger in the neighborhood.

She closed the food shelf without warning two weeks ago after 24 years and refused to tell the St. Paul Pioneer Press why.

That left reporters at the paper to look at the United Way, which appears to have been the biggest funder of the food shelf, but which is “focusing” its donations now, the paper says.

Meghan Barp, senior vice president of community impact with the United Way, said small nonprofits that primarily rely on a single donor to survive have become especially vulnerable as charitable foundations focus their giving.

Barp said the United Way’s last round of “safety net” grants for food shelves drew 221 applicants, with $35 million in requests for $16 million to give out.

“United Way is really committed to investing in the best programs possible to meet the needs of people living in poverty,” Barp said. “We also want to make sure we’re not the sole investor in any particular program. We don’t want organizations to be solely reliant on us to the point where if we don’t have the funding or aren’t able to invest in them they can’t manage.”

Sharing Korner was one of many small nonprofits that are often vulnerable to funding cuts, Barp noted.

“Mary (Brent) has been a pillar of the community and tremendous advocate for people in need,” she said. “But it’s hard being a one-woman show in the complex setting of what it means to live in poverty. The smaller nonprofits are having a tougher time, based on complexity of funding and crowded playing field.”

“Now we’ve got nothing,” a man who’s used the food shelf for 19 years told the Pioneer Press. “Mary said ‘we’ve closed’ and my heart went into my stomach. I’m not worried too much about the dog gone adults. I’m worried about the kids.”

The closing raises a troubling question: Can one person who aims to make a difference still make a difference in today’s non-profit economy?

Brent was the only staff at the food shelf.

“Mary (Brent) had a big job,” Eartha Borer Bell, who had had planned to deliver vegetables to the food pantry from her nonprofit, Frogtown Farm, told the paper. “I know she was the only staff. I believe the number she told me was they were serving over 14,000 people a year, and she was having trouble finding funding for it and staffing it alone. I don’t want her to come out of this looking like the bad guy.”

Other food shelves outside the neighborhood say they’ll try to fill the gap caused by the food shelf’s closing.