For many, food shelves the only option

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Most Minnesotans can walk into a grocery store and find whatever’s on their list — oranges, chicken or even cilantro.

But a 28-year-old mom from Brooklyn Park can’t do that.

Marquetta lost her job in December, and on Monday she ran out of food. She’s applying for Food Support, but when she realized that Hennepin County workers couldn’t give her food immediately, she lost it.

“I started panicking and crying. I’m like, ‘I don’t even have money to get to the food shelf,’ ” she said. “So they gave me $5 for petty cash, to try to get here at least.”

Marquetta wound up when many hungry people start. Statewide, monthly food self visits have jumped 62 percent since the beginning of the economic downturn, according to the advocacy group Hunger Solutions. It’s one of the first places people can go, quickly, when there’s not enough in the cupboard.

Despite indications that the economy is improving, people continue to visit food shelves with stories about job loss and unemployment.

That $5 allowed Marquetta to reach Community Emergency Assistance Program, which runs a food shelf in Brooklyn Park. By the time she arrived, she hadn’t eaten all day. She was worried about what she would feed her 4-year-old daughter.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve met plenty of people like Marquetta. I’ve been visiting food shelves of all sorts, talking to the people who run and use them. It’s part of a yearlong project in which I’ll be reporting on hunger in Minnesota – asking who’s hungry, why, what that experience is like, and what can be done to reduce the number of people who don’t have consistent access to healthy food. I’ll dive into the research about what hunger does to kids, I’ll look at the connection between food insecurity and obesity, I’ll explain how the Farm Bill affects low-income people.

But I started at food shelves. Some were tucked in the basement of local churches. Some were gigantic warehouses, offering everything from budgeting lessons to mortgage advice.

Many are largely staffed by volunteers, people who do their best to make the trip bearable. A bunch of them even allow clients to take a cart and shop for themselves, a change from the days when food shelf workers would hand visitors a shopping bag full of pre-selected items.

But as the numbers rise, it’s worth remembering: You’re lucky if you shop at the grocery store.

A food shelf just isn’t the same. Sure, there’s lots of food, but some of them are stocked with strange off-brands of soup and beans, others have limited selection.

You can’t walk in with a list and know you’ll emerge with ingredients for the recipe you want to make for dinner. You take what’s there. Then you go home, and figure out how to cook it.

It is, of course, much better than nothing.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.

  • Zebulun

    Reading this, I am even more thankful for the warm meal my family shared this evening. You are doing important work, Julie. I look forward to reading your suggestions about what can be done to reduce hunger in Minnesota.

  • Weiss

    As I make the simple flier for our 3rd annual January “GTW Homeowner’s Food Drive”, I want to share our story anyone who is reading this article. We hope it will inspire all small neighborhood groups and homeowner’s associations to get out and dig deep into their pantries this winter. It is less work than you would imagine!

    Our small development of 300 or so houses has been collecting food every January for the last three years. Understanding the need is greater after the holiday rush, we decided to bare the cold and spend 3 hours with our kids and a few neighbors collecting food at the end of January. Last year we filled an entire van with food! —

    1. Email the group list or stuff fliers. The flier/email usually announces the date, time, the food shelf name, and lists grocery needs. Put in a reminder that checks/cash for the Food Shelf will be accepted and delivered with the food. Most importantly the flier will need a contact email and/or number, so the residents can call with questions. Most of them will know you already since they are your neighbors!

    2. Put up signs at all the entrances to your development with Your Name Food Drive and date, and time. (made w/ simple/inexpensive materials: corrugated plastic signs that come with the wire post and black peal-off letters that you put on your mailbox, found at your local hardware store that can be used again next year.)

    3. Call ahead to schedule a large drop off at your local food shelf for the Monday following your Saturday Drive.

    4. Involve 4 families or more and their older kids and split the development map into fourths or more. Assign a section to each group and head out from 9-12 AM some Saturday. It usually works best to assign ea. family their own area in the development, because they know the neighbors personally. Drive down one side of street picking up sacks and knocking at those who don’t have sacks. Make a note of the #’s that haven’t been reached, in case they leave their bag later. (you want to check later at those #’s) Then drive down the other side of the same street. Repeat. Safely place any cash/check donations in your glove compartment.

    5. Put a “Your Name Food Drive” on your car or van, so people know you are not soliciting!

    6. Most food shelves are not open on Saturdays, so you will need to store your collections at a volunteer’s house until Monday. If you want you can have the kids separate the food by type into the sacks or boxes. They loooove this!

    7. Drop off your donations at your local food shelf and fill out the donations form.

    8. If you keep your “drive” the same day each year, people will become familiar with the it and be more likely to remember it in the future.

    9. Remember, the amount of donations takes time to build up, but your efforts will be greatly rewarded if you stick with it every year. Best of Luck!