White Earth food shelf serves high-poverty area

Yvonne Estey, manager of the Helping Hands Food Shelf in Mahnomen, Minn. (MPR photo/Caroline Yang)

Yvonne Estey, manager of the tiny food shelf on the White Earth Reservation, tries not to worry about how little the food shelf has.

"The shelves are pretty bare," she said recently, glancing at the sparse selection. There are beans, some canned fruit and vegetables, some dry milk and cereal. There are crackers and juice.

Fresh fruits and vegetables?

"No, we don't get too many of those."

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Ever run out?

"Well, pretty close."

The Helping Hands Food Shelf in Mahnomen serves about 80 families a month on the reservation, where tribal officials estimate up to 50 percent of people live below the poverty line. This is a place where even the food shelf manager struggles to get by.

Last month, while encouraging clients to sign up for food stamps, Estey realized she might qualify, too.

"So I thought, well, I'll fill out the application and take it up to the courthouse," she recalled.

Estey grew up near Hibbing, Minnesota and worked much of her adult life in the mines. She drove a fork lift, ran a cherry picker. She belongs to the White Earth Nation and spent childhood summers visiting her grandparents in Naytahwaush. After many years, she returned to the reservation and worked in the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen. She now lives on her Social Security check and wages from part-time work at the food shelf. It's not much.

Estey lives with her adult son, and eats enough healthy food. But making ends meet is tough, and she expects she'll qualify for food stamps.

That first-hand knowledge of what it's like to struggle with food gives her a deep empathy for people walking through the door, Estey said.

"I understand why they struggle," she said. "I understand why they're coming in."