The Damiano Center is in an old Catholic school just above Duluth's downtown. Most days, about 200 people come here for breakfast or lunch. A lot of them live in this central hillside neighborhood. Some are homeless, some are poor, some are just looking for company.
Head cook Loretta Connor plans the menus. She says some dishes are more popular than others.
"If they hear salmon loaf is coming, our numbers are low," she says with a smile. "But if they hear chili or 'Loretta's meat loaf,' they're here usually here, pretty steady."
Most of the food is donated, and volunteers help in the kitchen. Today First Lutheran Church ladies are serving refried beans, rice casserole, and fresh green salad.
After lunch, people relax and chat.
As they leave, they pick up day-old bread to take home.
Down the hall, there's a free clothing exchange.
Jan Dowell is a volunteer. She and two others keep busy all day long, sorting and hanging out clothes. "We do an unbelievable amount of business: we give out about 1,300 items a day," she says. "We get donations and we have to sort them out and put them all up. And everybody here except our bosses are volunteers!"
Some of the people sorting through the racks have been coming here off and on for twenty-five years. Like Gene Johnson McKeever.
"I raised six kids by going to the Damiano, and then there used to be a thrift store over there," she says, gesturing toward Fourth Street. "And I'd bring my kids here to eat sometimes."
Now she's picking up things for her grandchildren.
Remson Ward comes with his girlfriend. They shop for her sister, who has seven foster kids.
"For seven foster kids, I mean she gets funds, but they just don't go around. So this is great," he says. There's also an after-school program for kids, where they get a snack and learn about nutrition. They always take some food home.
Erik Torch directs all these projects. He says he's got mixed feelings about the Damiano Center celebrating a 25th birthday. He says back in the old days, before the recession of the 1980s, the government provided a safety net.
"You know, there was always poverty, but there was enough of an infrastructure provided by the government, that there wasn't a great need for all the non-profits like the Damiano Center," he says. "And unfortunately what you've seen is that over the years the need hasn't diminished. But the government support for people who are living on the margins, who are struggling to make ends meet, just doesn't exist."
Recently Torch has been spending a lot of money to repair and upgrade the 100-year-old building. It's a recognition that the Damiano Center could well be a permanent fixture in Duluth. He says all the poverty-fighting groups have to compete for donations and foundation money and a dwindling pot of government money. Torch says there must be a better way.
"An emergency shelter is an incredibly expensive way to house a person; so is a de-tox facility, or prison. These are the systems that chronically homeless people are often operating in, so they're getting the most expensive forms of housing," he says. "They're often, if they have medical problems, going to the emergency room, which is the most expensive form of medical care. And at end of day they're no better for any of it."
It's the same everywhere in Minnesota. In the last five years, Twin Cities area food shelves have seen a 45 percent increase in use.
Jill Hiebert is with Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a fund-raising organization. She says more and more food shelf users have jobs. They just don't make enough money to pay all their expenses.
"We have both parents working multiple jobs and it's still not enough to cover everything, as far as paying for your rent or your mortgage, and buying groceries, and paying for the other bills," she says. "It's just not keeping up. Salaries not keeping up with costs."
Hiebert and others are asking the legislature for more money for food shelves -- she says the state's contribution has been flat since 1995.
There's also a bill requiring the state to simplify the paperwork for food stamp applicants. Right now they have to fill out a 20 page form every month.