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Area food shelves say demand is up, donations are down
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Volunteer Chad Taylor holds a box of food to feed one person for five days. He says donations usually don't pick up until the holidays. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
The U.S. Census Bureau releases its latest data on income and poverty rates on Tuesday. Typically, Minnesota's poverty rate has been among the lowest in the nation. But area food shelves say the numbers don't tell the whole story. They say can't keep up with demand.

Brooklyn Park, Minn. — Chad Taylor packs boxes of macaroni and cheese and loaves of bread at an emergency food shelf in Brooklyn Park. Taylor volunteers at the Community Emergency Assistance Program. Each person, he says, gets 15 pounds of food to last five days. His inventory is low, and Taylor doesn't expect it to get much better any time soon.

"Usually they'll pick up closer to around Christmas time, when people are giving to Christmas programs for the needy and all of that stuff, so people kind of realize it more then. But right now it's probably one of the harder times," Taylor says.

Earlier, Taylor put together a box of food for Heidi, 26, a single parent who has no food to feed her children, ages 7 and 3.

"I'm temporarily out of a job right now and my two children need to be fed," Heidi says.

Heidi was already living on the edge of poverty and fell off. She faced two major setbacks in the past couple of weeks -- her car broke down and she broke her foot. As a result, she has no money coming in right now. She's exhausted the five-year limit on welfare.

Heidi sits at the food shelf while her children cling to her, fidgeting and wiggling. Her son plays with an empty candy wrapper.

When she broke her foot, she says, she couldn't work her inventory job that paid $8.25 an hour. It was a job with no benefits. She says she feels well enough to work now, but she needs a doctor's written permission to return. Without insurance, Heidi says, she can't afford to pay the doctor's fee.

"It was $50 to even go in to see the doctor at my clinic. So it's very hard. I'm struggling," she says.

The cost of gas, the cost of utilities, for day care, additional co-pays. I think it's below the radar screen for a lot of people. It truly is a hidden disaster to many people.
- Stephen Klein, Community Emergency Assistance Program

Stephen Klein, executive director of the Community Emergency Assistance Program, says about half the food goes to children. The Children's Defense Fund has ranked Minnesota as second in the nation in the percentage of poor children.

Klein says there's no one major cause for the high demand. Instead, families are coping with higher costs in many areas that have added up.

"The cost of gas, the cost of utilities, for day care, additional co-pays. I think it's below the radar screen for a lot of people," says Klein. "I think that's part of why we're not seeing the resources, and the public acknowledgement and the generosity from all sources to help address these needs. It truly is a hidden disaster to many people."

LeAnn Santana pursues grants for the Community Emergency Assistance Program. She says donations aren't keeping pace. She says food shelves are already down, because of higher use from families needing to feed their children during the summer.

"Kids are out of school, they don't have access to school lunch programs, so that just increases the demand at home and they just don't have it," says Santana. "And we have very few donations coming in, because a lot of service organizations slow down during the summer, people don't attend church as regularly, everybody's on vacation."

Hunger Solutions Minnesota is an organization that tracks information about the state's food shelves. Its director, Colleen Moriarty, says poverty numbers don't tell the whole story. She says people who lost their jobs due to the economic downturn after 9/11 are still coming in -- four years later.

"Even if they were re-employed, they were re-employed at a lesser level than their previous job. And so they never were going to get caught up to where they once were, even though they were re-employed," says Moriarty. "It really isn't reflected in the employment figures, but it is continually reflected in the need for food at the local level."

Meanwhile, Heidi says she'll depend on the food shelf to get her family through. She says her grandmother is helping pay her rent. Heidi says the food lasts long enough, most of the time.

"Sometimes, depending on how these kids eat. They like to eat a lot. I try to give it to them sparingly, though, so they don't eat it all up," Heidi.

The Brooklyn Park food shelf, like others, has had to buy food from local grocery stores to keep up with demand. It says it took money from another fund to pay for those groceries; a fund used to help families pay their rent in emergencies.