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What does it mean to be hungry in Minnesota?

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At the Minnesota Food Helpline, the phone rings all day long. 

Many of the callers are people looking for help finding a food shelf or obtaining food stamps. But sometimes they simply don't have anything to eat.

  "It is really the insecurity and the panic that strikes a parent who knows that they have no idea how they're going to get that next meal," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, which runs the hotline. 

Moriarty has answered that phone many times.  She hears what it means to be hungry.

The federal government doesn't measure hunger. Instead, it measures something called "food insecurity," a lack of consistent access to nutritious food. 

About 10 percent of Minnesota households don't have the food they need, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many organizations estimate the number is even higher. Among the hungry are children, elderly people, parents and single adults.

Marilyn Jackson
Marilyn Jackson lives in Minneapolis and is raising her five grandchildren. Although she has a job, she doesn't make enough money to pay her bills and buy food. She sometimes visits a food shelf for milk and produce.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Advocates say many have to make tough choices about how to spend their money -- often choosing between food, rent or gas.

  "It means the elderly population choosing between eating or buying medication," Moriarty said. "It means not having enough food from the 20th of the month to the end of the month."

Marilyn Jackson is among those trying to make the most out of virtually nothing. At 59, she is raising her five grandchildren. When she runs low on food or milk, she visits the Catholic Charities' Branch I Food Shelf in Minneapolis.

Jackson works full time, but doesn't make enough to pay all her bills and buy food. She falls in the middle of the spectrum of people that the U.S. government considers food insecure. She doesn't go entire days without eating, but frequently skips meals. Often, she'll cook a pot of beans, only to realize there's only enough for the children.

  "I can tolerate not eating," she said. "You make sure the kids eat. And then I always tell them, I'm on a diet."

Minnesota Food Helpline
Rachel Kennedy and Matt Beachey answer the Minnesota Food Helpline, a hotline Minnesotans can call with questions about food shelves, Food Support -- or simply because they've run out of food.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Jackson is not hungry all the time, which makes her plight typical. She's among those who depend on food shelves only four or five times a year. Still, she knows what hunger feels like.

  "It's a hurting feeling," she said. "My stomach is in cramps, it's whining, growling. ... You get up, you drink a glass of water, and lay back down hoping everything will be OK."

  Like many Minnesotans who worry about food, Jackson buys cheaper items that are often less nutritious. She doesn't think her grandchildren go to bed feeling like she does, but she sees that they want more. Sometimes they lie around after dinner, pretending everything's OK. Or they ask for seconds.

  "What do you say? 'Stop being so greedy,'"  Jackson said. "It's not being greedy. It's me adjusting myself to what I can allow them to have on a daily ritual. I say, 'Well, if I give them too much, they're going to be expecting this every day.' So I try to keep them on a routine. 'This is all we can eat right now, let's wait and watch TV, and have something later.' And then I be hoping that by later they'll be gone to sleep."

Rob Zeaske
Rob Zeaske is the executive director of Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities food bank that solicits, receives, and stores food and grocery products and then distributes those products to food shelves, meal programs, and other organizations that provide them directly to hungry people.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

  Jackson considers herself a good budgeter, and said she hasn't shopped anywhere but second-hand stores in years. But after recently undergoing hip surgery, she couldn't afford a cell phone to keep track of her grandchildren. She bought a prepaid phone, but exceeded her minutes. 

Her life is like dominos -- one thing easily sets everything else falling.

  "That happens over and over and over," said Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland.

  Zeaske sees many people with complicated lives who must make difficult choices with limited dollars, some of whom are in dire straits. 

But even those who only sometimes have trouble finding food can suffer the ill effects of depression and anxiety that comes from not knowing when they will have another meal, he said.

  "It's not just whether or not you have the meal," Zeaske said. "It's how does it affect us when we don't know, and when we treat every meal like it might be our last for a while."