The number of Minnesotans who sought help to feed themselves and their families hit record levels in 2011. Never before have so many people visited food shelves or relied on food stamps. But there are signs the big spikes of recent years could be slowing.
Here's the bad news: As of November, there are now 511,343 Minnesotans on food stamps — more people than live in Minneapolis and Duluth. Food shelves have seen a 9.8 percent jump in visits from August 2010 to August 2011. New people just keep showing up.
That is especially true in the Twin Cities suburbs.
"It's been a steady, hard climb," said Susan Freeman, who runs Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People, a food shelf based in Bloomington. She still sees scores of people walk through the door who have never needed a food shelf before. They've spent down their savings, and their 401Ks.
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"Many individuals really try to take care of themselves," Freeman said. "And they wait until the very, very end to come to the realization that things aren't going to change."
Freeman saw double-digit increases in visits to her food shelf this year. And she doesn't expect relief in the year to come.
"I don't think we'll see a big reduction in need. I think if those people who have been helped can get on their feet, there are still new people who have yet to hit bottom," Freeman said.
The record number of Minnesotans who seek food aid has strained food shelves. Colleen Moriarty, director of Hunger Solutions, isn't surprised the numbers are still climbing several years into the economic downturn.
"What you can take from that is that it's harder for people to get back on their feet than we first anticipated," Moriarty said.
But there is good news: Food shelves aren't seeing the sharp increases they once saw. In 2009, visits jumped 21.8 percent. This year, just 9.8 perent.
Need is increasing, but it's not increasing as quickly as in the past. That may be true for other food assistance programs, too.
The number of Minnesotans on food stamps jumped 15.8 percent from September 2010 to September 2011. It was third-highest jump in the nation.
"It's really driven by the economy and by the high level of unemployment and long-term unemployment and the need that that's created in the community," said Chuck Johnson, chief financial officer at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
But after significant increases, food stamp numbers have gone up only 1.5 percent since May. However, Johnson's not ready to bet that things are actually improving.
"I feel like it's a little too soon to go on that limb and say it looks like it's slowing down or getting better," Johnson said.
Schools have also seen increased need. Last year, the state hit a record - 36.6 percent of all students were on free or reduced-price lunch. Susan Richardson, who directs nutrition services in the Roseville Area Schools, has seen it firsthand.
"The trend has been those parents who have lost their jobs -- they are absolutely stuck, and never would have been on the program before, except that they're running out of money and resources, and the kids need to eat," Richardson said.
In Roseville, the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch has been climbing. But this year Richardson saw just a 3 percent increase — and some hope.
"You know, you feel like it's not leveling off. You're so aware of what's happening in the economy," Richardson said. "But if you look at the actual numbers, it is leveling off, this year, 2011."
It's difficult to determine if Roseville is representative of other districts, as statewide numbers aren't yet available.
However, there is little optimism that need for food aid will actually fall in the near future.
"I think we're still seeing people kind of climbing out of the recession," Moriarty said. "And I anticipate that we will see people climbing out of the recession for at least another year."
She's concerned that a certain level of hunger in the community will be perceived as the norm.
"I worry that people become kind of complacent. You hear: there's a traffic backup on highway 94, and people are hungry. That it becomes kind of accepted as the way things are," Moriarty said.
She and other hunger relief advocates are gearing up for debate over the federal Farm Bill, which funds food stamps and is up for reauthorization in 2012.