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Food shelves evolving with clients' needs

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Sorting food
From left, volunteers Whitney Nelson, 19, Donna Berbee and Jacob Schimetz, 11, help sort non-perishable items at ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka, Minn. Friday, March 18, 2011. In addition to the food distribution program, ICA Food Shelf also offers clients financial assistance for rent, mortgage and utilities.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A few decades ago, a food shelf was sometimes just that — a shelf with food on it. Perhaps it was a cupboard in a church basement.

But in recent years, food shelves have become such a central part of the way the nation fights hunger that it's easy to forget they didn't always exist.

In Minnesota, visits to food shelves jumped 62 percent between the fall of 2008 and last fall. Many of the people now visiting food shelves are seeking help for the first time.

Not only is the face of hunger changing in Minnesota, so are the food shelves. Some food shelves have evolved into social service organizations that give people more than just food.

At the ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka, for example, clients sign in at the front desk, and are sent to a social worker who talks to them about their budget.

When people come for help, food is usually just a part of the problem, executive director Cathy Maes said. They may also need job training, or help paying rent or utilities.

"We know that people who come into the food shelf are coming because something else in their world is awry," Maes said. "Being hungry is a symptom of something else."

The ICA Food Shelf aims to help families stay in their homes, and regain their ability to take care of themselves, she said. Food alone doesn't accomplish that.

Selecting items
Marianne Schommer of Minnetonka, Minn. selects items at ICA Food Shelf. Schommer has been out of work for about a year, and said she is grateful for the services at ICA.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We've had to become a social service agency," Maes said.

It wasn't always that way.

The modern food pantry, which serves boxed and canned food to neighbors, did not become common in the United States until about three decades ago, said Joel Berg, author "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?"

Some food shelves got their start in the 1970s. But it wasn't until the 1980s that they suddenly opened all over the country. Berg contends the nation needed them, because cuts to the federal social safety net under President Ronald Reagan left more people in need.

Some conservatives, however, point to the recession of the early 1980s, and argue it was largely the economic downturn that left people struggling.

Regardless of the cause, many people, including church leaders, saw a void.

"Churches would get knocks on the door, people needed help," said Sue Kainz, campaign coordinator for Minnesota FoodShare, which runs an annual food drive.

"Then the churches got together and said, 'Well you know, instead of them knocking on five doors, how about if we all go together, and we'll start this food shelf?'" Kainz recalled. "You know, it was a whole new phenomenon."

At first, some food shelves were little more than closets in a city hall.

Food for the family
Bill Norton of Minnetonka, Minn. walks a cart of groceries to his car at ICA Food Shelf. Norton uses ICA services to feed his family of six.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We even had a couple of food shelves that were in funeral homes," Kainz said. "It was the only free space they could get. They couldn't have food shelf day if there was a funeral."

Since that era, food shelves have expanded nationwide. In Minnesota, there are now more than 300. Many have their own buildings and are registered non-profits. Increasingly, they offer not only food but help with housing costs and refer people to job-training or other programs.

Not all food shelves are doing this. Plenty still just give out food. But over the past decade, many have branched out.

In part food shelves are changing because they have established themselves as places to go for help and connected themselves to other organizations that they can refer clients to, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, which advocates for food shelves in the state.

"Because of the longevity of this relationship with food shelves ... they've become trusted members of the community," she said.

The broader mission of food shelves works for clients, including Natalie Thomas, who once lived comfortably, in a house in St. Louis Park with her husband and three children.

After Thomas was diagnosed with a tumor two years ago, their lives took a downward spiral. They lost their house, and one day there was nothing left for food.

"There just was no money left to buy groceries, none," she said.

Thomas needed more than just food — and at ICA Food Shelf, she got it. She also received help with rent for a month.

Without it her family would have been evicted from their apartment. Now she has a job again. Her family is still struggling, but things are improving.

"Sometimes when you're behind, it's so hard to get on a level field," Thomas said. "So if someone can just give you an initial boost up, it helps you to get back on track and keep things going the way things should be."

It's a boost that, a decade ago, most food shelves didn't offer.

Return to Ground Level: Hunger »