Scott Nelson remembers the boom years of just a few years ago, when his drywall business kept him busy and he never wanted for anything, especially food in the refrigerator.
There was no shortage of people who wanted to build homes, or buy them. But that was before 2008, when the real estate bubble burst, ending the days of plenty.
View more photos of Minnesotans struggling with hunger in Kanabec County.
"It was just like, everybody stopped everything they were doing," Nelson said. "And it was over."
Nelson and his wife Kelly joined a growing number of Minnesotans who are seeking help to feed themselves and their families. Since the spring of 2008, visits to food shelves have jumped more than 50 percent statewide.
That's largely because unemployment has left more people struggling with hunger, particularly in areas like Kanabec County just north of the Twin Cities, where the Nelsons live.
With an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent — among the state's highest — Kanabec County has many people in need, some for the first time.
As they prepare dinner for themselves at their home in Mora, Kanabec's county seat, they recall how their lives used to be when he made $30 an hour.
"We were living the American dream," said Scott Nelson, 51. "You have a job, you own a house, you own your car. You have enough money to pay the bills and then a little bit."
Then the jobs dried up. Because Nelson was self-employed, he could not apply for unemployment benefits.
Kelly Nelson, 46, makes up to $16,000 a year from her part-time job as an accountant and is looking for other work. That makes it tough for the couple to meet mortgage payments of about $1,000 a month and utilities.
The Nelsons trimmed monthly expenses and sold everything they could, including a boat and motorcycle. For a while, they relied on Kelly's part-time income and maxed out their credit cards. They also turned to the cheapest food they could buy, often poor cuts of meat and pasta.
"We would find ourselves, I guess, not eating real meals," he said. "We would snack, that kind of thing, and it wasn't the healthiest food."
Eating cheap food meant less meat and fewer fruits and vegetables. For Kelly Nelson, the worst part was they couldn't invite their adult children over for dinner.
"There just wasn't enough to feed everybody," she said.
When their bills became too tough for them to manage, Scott Nelson filed for bankruptcy, received help from the dislocated worker program and did something he never dreamed of: he applied for food stamps. He hated going to what he calls the welfare office to ask for help.
"Work was just in our blood, you know," Nelson said. "That's what you do, you go to work. And I would have loved to work my way out of it, but there just wasn't work to do."
Now taking classes in computer networking at Cambridge Community College, Nelson is optimistic that, soon, he and his wife will be able to make it without help.
ONCE PROSPEROUS CONSTRUCTION SECTOR HIT HARD
The Nelsons have plenty of company. The unemployment rate in Kanabec County is 10.1 percent, well above the state average of 6.9 percent. Many of the people who live here once worked in construction, one of the hardest hit sectors in the recession. Since the downturn began, Kanabec County has lost one in every five construction jobs. Many of its more than 16,200 residents still struggle with long and expensive commutes.
Two years ago, food shelf directors were calling people like Scott Nelson the New Face of Hunger — middle class Americans who had never before needed help with food. Now they've have become one of the typical faces of hunger in Minnesota.
Karen Sandy, a volunteer at the Mora Food Pantry can't help but notice the change. Food shelf workers now see people of all education levels and backgrounds coming for help.
"People with higher incomes are losing jobs as well as people with lower incomes," she said.
Every month, volunteers at the tiny food shelf see new clients. The number of visits each month has jumped by a third since before the economic downturn, from 260 to 345. Although donations are up, they are no longer keeping pace.
The growing numbers of middle class people who now struggle with hunger is just the latest setback for Kanabec County, where people have long struggled with unemployment and poverty. Twelve percent of county residents have annual incomes that are below the poverty level of $22,350 for a family of four, compared to 10 percent statewide.
Workers are less educated than in the state as a whole. Since the catalog and online retailer Fingerhut left about a decade ago, there just aren't many places to find jobs — and the new ones being created are often part time.
But people struggling with food for the first time are often hesitant to ask for help.
At the local community action agency, Lezlie Sauter fields calls from people who can't make ends meet. They don't know their way around the social services system, and they often can't quite believe what's happening to them, said Sauter, who works in the agency's community services department.
"You always have that hope that — maybe in two weeks I'll get that job, or I'll sell that toy I've been trying to get rid of," Sauter said. "Or something will pan out, and it will all work out, it will all work out. And it doesn't."
Many people in Kanabec County have applied for food stamps, known as Food Support in Minnesota. Nearly twice as many Kanabec County residents, or 889 people, are on food stamps now as in 2007. County workers are having trouble keeping up with the increase in applications.
As the need for help has jumped, the community has stepped up to help. When the recession hit, Dave Anderson helped launch Soup for the Soul, a free community dinner served on Monday nights. Everyone is welcome, regardless of income.
Soup for the Soul is just one of several new food programs in the area started since the recession. These aren't traditional food shelves, just churches or other organizations that distribute food.
When the recession hit, lots of people in the community expressed an interest in helping their neighbors, said Anderson, a local pastor. But the number of volunteers has dwindled.
"When we first met, there were 22 people who came to the first meeting," Anderson recalled. "[They said] 'hey let's do this thing; this is awesome. What happens now is when we have a meeting, there's four of us."
HANGING ON, WAITING FOR JOBS
Every week, Emma's Pizza, which Anderson owns, is packed for the free dinner. But Anderson said it is harder to find money for food. And he doesn't expect the need to end soon.
"When it first started, I thought it would be over by 2008," he said. "And then I thought it would probably be over by 2012. It doesn't look like it could possibly be over by 2012."
Among those relying on Anderson to help them through tough times are Dawn and David Noga.
After years of working and saving, the Nogas bought what for them was a dream house, a modest home by a river. For one shining moment, when the economy was booming, they were making it financially.
"You know, we had it all, and then we lost it all," she said.
When David Noga, 40, injured his back and could no longer work in construction, the family struggled to get by on his wife's income.
Dawn Noga, 33, worked at Minnesota Extended Treatment Options and held two other jobs to make ends meet. But they lost their house, and in June Dawn lost her primary job.
In June, the couple and their 14-year-old daughter Asia moved in with Dawn Noga's mother in Ogilvie, Minn. They're also foster parents to a niece and nephew, ages 6 and 5.
Hard times also sent them to the food shelf. For Noga, the trip there was hard — because she had long ago stopped thinking of herself as someone who needed it.
"I wanted to wear like a shade or something over my head so nobody would recognize me, because I didn't want people thinking I'm really this poor," she said.
The Nogas have little choice but to go to the food shelf for food. Sometimes there simply isn't enough for everyone.
"Yeah, there's been times I don't eat, because I want the kids to eat, especially if there's school. They should eat before going to school, otherwise they're not going to be thinking right during the day.
Noga still has hope, though, that she and her family will once again be able to make it on their own — without help.
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