Growth slowed this year in the number of Minnesotans seeking help to provide food for themselves and their families.
Three main programs — food stamps, food shelves and subsidized school lunches — all hit record levels of use in 2012, but in each case the pace of increase has slowed.
"It's always good news when we don't see 10 percent increases, because that means the level of panic is down," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota.
Food shelf visits in the first eight months of 2012 were 1 percent higher than in the same period a year earlier. That figure had been growing by double-digit percentages.
But Moriarty was at a loss to explain whether the change is the result of the economy picking up or of the food shelf system being unable to expand to meet more demand.
"The reports of people who are just in dire circumstances who never thought they'd be in them are less, so that new group of poor people, we're seeing less of that," she said.
“We're really getting the word out to people that if you're having issues meeting your nutritional needs, consider applying for SNAP.”Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of child and family services
But Moriarty worried that people will become complacent, "that we will just accept a certain level of people, who it's OK for charity to help them feed their families. And it's not OK," she said. She still intends to ask the Legislature for additional support for food shelves next session.
The slowing increase provided little comfort for Susan Russell Freeman, who runs the Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People food shelf in Bloomington.
"It hasn't gone down," she said. "That's the point."
Like many suburban food shelves, VEAP was hit hard in the economic downturn. Clients have to wait up to five days to get in. VEAP plans to move to a larger space in the new year. And Freeman isn't surprised that they're still busy. The food shelf serves many under-employed Minnesotans who take time to get back on their feet.
"Even though other people may see their 401(k)s improving, calls back to more seasonal work, people who are normally under-employed will not see that recovery for a much longer time," she said. "So whenever those in the know say that our economy is recovered, I guarantee you, we're 18 months behind that, if not 24."
The growth in food stamp use also slowed, to 3 percent from November 2011 to November 2012. A year earlier the increase was 12 percent.
This year's increase in what is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was partly the result of an outreach effort that placed ads on buses and in grocery stores encouraging eligible Minnesotans to sign up, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner of child and family services.
"We're really getting the word out to people that if you're having issues meeting your nutritional needs, consider applying for SNAP," she said.
In fact, she said she hoped to see another small increase next year if that means more hungry Minnesotans are getting needed help.
A third mainstay of food help for families is subsidized meals at schools. Official numbers haven't been released, but Minnesota education officials predict the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch will be up about 2 percent this school year over last.
In the South Washington County School District the number edged up only a little, said nutrition services director Kathryn Grafsgaard. "The last few years, it's been a little bit alarming," she said. "But now it seems to be leveling out."
The need is high enough at some schools that the district is considering backpack programs to help students over the weekends.
"Anecdotally, the number of kids that come to school hungry on Monday or are worried about what they're going to eat when they get home, there are definitely areas of need in our school district," Grafsgaard said.
Robbinsdale schools have seen the number of students on free or reduced- price lunch creep up to ABOUT 49 percent, said child nutrition program director Adele Lillie. She said many families seem to be just holding on but make too much money to qualify for lunch help.
"That's just something that just tugs at my heart," Lillie said. "Because they're trying so hard to make ends meet. And just making that little too much each year, they don't qualify. And that would just be such a help to those working families."
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