Hunger and help move out to the suburbs

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Mark Weizel, Roland Dorr
Mark Weizel, 47, spent time with his grandson Roland Dorr, 5, on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011, at their home in Excelsior, Minn. Weizel, a maintenance mechanic, moved his family of five into his brother-in-law's one-bedroom home about two years ago when they weren't able to make the rent at their home in Shakopee, Minn. They had anticipated being here only a couple of months, but then Weizel lost his job. Since then, he has struggled to find steady work, taking temporary jobs as they come. The family visits the ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka.
Caroline Yang for MPR

The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families is on the rise in the Twin Cities suburbs, including the middle class and affluent communities of Minnetonka, Eagan and Lakeville — places you might not associate with food insecurity.

Visits to suburban food shelves have jumped 89 percent since 2008, and food stamp use is up 68 percent from 2008-2011, as the loss of jobs and homes in this economic downturn has left more people in trouble, including middle class families that never thought it would happen to them.

View a photo essay of suburban families struggling with hunger.

And many who struggle with finding enough to eat want to keep their situation a secret. That means communities have to be creative if they want to try and help.

One of those people is a man named Bob, a 55-year-old Minnetonka resident who lost his job three years ago and who has been bringing in half as much pay at whatever pickup work he's been able to find since then.

In exchange for a window into his experience, MPR News agreed not disclose his last name or where he worked, because he's worried prospective employers might pass over him if they know he uses a food shelf.

Armed with college degrees, Bob and his wife built a good life. He had a solid career.

"I think people dress up enough to cover up the pain inside."

"We were comfortable, very much comfortable," he said. "Two cars, two kids. Bicycles, lawnmowers..."

And then: "Bam." Bob and his wife depleted their savings, their IRA, their 401K. They maxed out their credit cards. Then one day about a year ago, there was nothing in the refrigerator but milk and eggs. He knew it was time to seek assistance.

He said his wife was apprehensive about reaching out.

"She said, 'I'm not going. I'm not going to go do that,'" Bob recalled. So he went to the food shelf instead - without telling anyone, especially his own children.

"We didn't want them to worry. You know, 'only poor people go to the food shelf,' and if you're poor you probably can't afford the house, so they're going to come and take the house away," he said.

In fact, his house has twice been in foreclosure. And staying in that house — and keeping the kids in their schools — was important to Bob.

He's hardly alone.

HESITANT TO SEEK HELP

The suburbs have always had pockets of poverty, but that situation has grown worse during the economic downturn. Hunger relief organizations all over the suburbs have seen a spike in people who never thought they'd need help. Cathy Maes directs the food shelf where Bob gets assistance.

"From the outside, people might say there's no need in the western suburbs," she said. "From the inside, the need is great."

Maes said visits to the Intercongregation Communities Association food shelf in Minnetonka have jumped 80 percent since 2008. One-third of its clients come from Minnetonka, where median household income is $79,082, well above the seven-county metro median of $63,927. She knows that new clients are hesitant to come.

"Sometimes the first stop is in your pastor's office," she said.

David Adney
David Adney, principal of Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minn., greeted students in the hallway between classes on Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. Adney says that people may not expect to find need in a school like his, but it's there. The numbers are not large, but he has seen them grow as families struggle with the current economy. He says some kids do come to school hungry, but will often try to disguise their need. Adney's team of teachers and counselors keep watch for subtle signs of trouble and try to find ways to be supportive. The school has a room full of toiletries and clothing for students of need. It also has a closet full of food for students who don't get enough at home. Most students do not know about these resources, but those in need know where to go.
Caroline Yang for MPR

Just a few miles from the Minnetonka food shelf, people eat a weekly meal at Excelsior Covenant Church. This used to be an ordinary community meal. People stopped by a table to pay, then ate together. Pastor Steve Anderson remembers the moment that changed. A family walked in, and didn't have any money.

"We just helped them sort of skirt past that table, kind of quietly, because we didn't want to make a scene of it. We came back the next week and said we've got to be done with this, the money collection," Anderson said.

Now, the meal is free. A visitor looking around the room can't tell who's in need, and who's not. And that's the point. The church wants to help those who are struggling, but often people want to keep their need invisible.

"I think people dress up enough to cover up the pain inside," Anderson said.

And it's not just people in the church community who come for help. Sometimes strangers just walk in, even if they don't go to Excelsior Covenant, and ask to talk confidentially with a pastor. More than ever before, they're asking for food.

KIDS WORRY ABOUT APPEARANCES

Helping confidentially can be even trickier at school — especially a school where most kids are doing just fine.

Minnetonka High School Principal David Adney said the school discreetly gives food to students who don't get enough from home, keeping a small room filled with donated oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, and other items.

"[They are] instant lunches that kids can make quickly, and it doesn't stand out," Adney said. The last thing a student wants to hear is, "Oh, my gosh, you can't feed yourself."

The number of kids who need this food is small, but rising, the principal said. He said his team of teachers and counselors watches for subtle signs of trouble: unlaundered clothes, irritability, falling grades. But he said kids can be really good at hiding it.

"If I didn't have them, I would not be buying hamburger, I can tell you that for sure."

"They naturally feel like, 'Oh, I'm not the same as everybody else.' And that's kind of the high school creed: 'I want to be the same,'" as everybody else. But the students who need to use it "know it's here," he said.

One of the staffers who tries to track down the kids who need help is Kathy Witschorik. People call her The Food Lady. She makes sure the right kids know there's a place to turn.

"They're too embarrassed to ask. So you really have to seek them out," she said. "Other kids will tell you they don't have heat in their house, or various things. And then I try to find them what they need."

The western reaches of the Twin Cities aren't the only suburbs finding ways to deal with new — and sometimes hidden — needs. Eagan, for example, has big-name employers such as Thomson Reuters, ECOLAB and Lockheed Martin, and an unemployment rate well below the state average. But Lisa Horn heads a food shelf in Eagan that experienced a 50 percent jump in use over last year. Like in Minnetonka, Horn sees many people who have never needed help, and they're hesitant to come in.

"These are people that still park on the other end of the parking lot and walk down. These are people who still call and say, 'I can't make it in today, I can't do it.' These are women that maybe their husbands don't even know that they went to a food shelf, or the other way around," she said.

But using a food shelf in the suburbs can help families stretch their budgets, and remain in their suburban communities. That's the case for Lisa McKenney, who uses the Lakeville branch of Horn's food shelf.

Not long ago, McKenney was living in a big Lakeville house, complete with a hot tub on the deck and basketball hoop in the driveway. She and her husband both worked.

"I don't want to say we were a June Cleaver family, but we did always have the salad, the corn, the potatoes, the chicken," she said one day while ferrying her kids to sports practice.

Everything changed when she got divorced, then lost her job. Now McKenney and her two high-school age kids live in a two-bedroom townhouse. She made her daughter quit skiing. They gave up their pets, and she's holding garage sales to sell everything she can. And she relies on the food shelf.

"If I didn't have them, I would not be buying hamburger, I can tell you that for sure," she said.

With the food shelf, she manages to stay in Lakeville and keep the kids in their schools.

And she knows that some people would say she should cut all her kids activities.

"Can my kids go without their sports? They probably could. But I don't want to take that from them."

Food shelf directors in most Twin Cities suburbs say more people like Lisa come every month. They want to stay in their homes and communities.

But they often wait too long. By the time they arrive, they're already facing foreclosure or bankruptcy — or skipping meals.