Tough times challenge efforts to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving

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Christine Pulver
Christine Pulver (far left) distributes Baskets of Hope at Keystone Community Services' Rice Street food shelf on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. The Baskets of Hope are boxed Thanksgiving meals for up to eight people. They include a turkey, canned sweet potatoes, stuffing, cherry pie, and other items.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Families across the state will sit down tomorrow for a Thanksgiving meal — turkey, mashed potatoes, maybe some cranberries or pumpkin pie.

But for some Minnesotans, putting that food on the table is a challenge. Communities and hunger relief organizations have been working for weeks to make sure everyone gets a meal, but higher food prices are making it harder.

That's why, three weeks before the holiday, volunteers for Thanksgiving Meals on Wheels camped out in Bill Foussard's living room in St. Paul. Armed with multiple phones — Foussard adds seven lines in his home each November — they took calls from hundreds of people who need food on Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving Day, each of those callers will receive a home-delivered meal.

Last year, volunteers delivered 15,000 meals. This year, they're prepared to deliver 17,000, given what they've heard from callers about tough times.

"You know, it's just people out of work, and things are so much more expensive," Foussard said. "People are struggling more than ever right now."

Foussard is just one of many people helping hungry Minnesotans with a Thanksgiving meal. All over the state, groups have special programs to help those in need during the holiday. But an increase in the need, along with a jump in food prices, is making that tougher than it used to be.

"I think everybody's feeling the strain of food prices going up, particularly turkeys," said Lori Kratchmer, who heads the Emergency Foodshelf Network, a food bank based in the Twin Cities. "Our turkey prices are running up 16-17 percent compared to what we paid last year at this time."

The Emergency Foodshelf Network, distributes boxed Thanksgiving meals it calls "baskets of hope" — complete with frozen turkeys — that families can cook at home.

Toni Fox
Toni Fox takes calls for Thanksgiving Meals on Wheels on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. The program will distribute around 17,000 meals on Thanksgiving Day to people in need in the Twin Cities area.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"The whole idea is this allows a family to be able to have the holiday meal at home with their family and friends, whoever they want to include," Kratcher said.

This way, she said, families can have a sense of normalcy even if they're struggling. But the food bank had to buy many of the food items — and that was more expensive this year.

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently reported that the cost of a Thanksgiving meal will jump 13 percent this year.

Still, Kratchmer's group doubled the number baskets that went out this year. They're still raising money to cover the cost.

Helping to distribute the boxed meals is Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, which runs three food shelves. It received 750 of the meals and allowed families to register for them. But that doesn't begin to cover the need, said Christine Pulver, who directs Keystone's basic needs program.

"It doesn't even come close," said Pulver, who notes that all of the boxes were spoken for in five days. "We have people coming in who didn't register and want a basket, and it's really difficult to say no and turn them away."

The food shelf has seen a 17 percent increase over last year in the number of people coming in for help. With that much of an increase, there's not much money for holiday extras, Pulver said.

"We still have a number of companies that bring turkeys and hams to us at Thanksgiving and Christmas," she said. "But it's just not going as far."

Thousands of Minnesotans who need a Thanksgiving meal won't have a box of food sitting at home. They'll instead turn to a better-known source of help at the holidays — the many hot meal programs around the state.

Ben Johnson, who oversees food operations at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, said it also was hit by higher turkey prices. The mission paid 17 cents per pound more than last year. Johnson said mission volunteers will likely serve as many as 500 people Thanksgiving Day.

Minnesotans come out in droves to volunteer for this holiday and Johnson is grateful. But, he wishes people would remember there's need every day.

"People will call like a week before Thanksgiving [and ask] 'can we come down on Thanksgiving?' Well, no. But you can come tomorrow. We need help, you know, Saturday."

They usually don't come then.

The holidays do bring good news for hunger relief groups, though. It's the time for giving. Many groups take in a large percentage of their annual funding during the last six weeks of the year, and save up for when donations slow.