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.