Four north metro high schools have set up permanent food shelves in response to a need among their students.
Vanessa Elmore is 18 and homeless. She works, but her job and food stamps don't go far enough, so she stocks up each day at her local food shelf.
It's at her high school.
In addition to classrooms, athletic fields, computer labs and cafeteria, Brooklyn Park's Champlin Park High now has a permanent food shelf. It was set up by staff last fall in response to rising poverty among students, and the sense that too many kids were going hungry during the school day. Three other high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin district have taken the same step, two of them in the past four months.
Many schools host periodic food drives or launch other efforts to help students in need. Only a few have actually set up permanent food shelves.
"To be perfectly honest, we don't know a lot about it," said Lori Kratchmer, executive director of the New Hope-based Emergency Foodshelf Network, a nonprofit food bank that supplies Minnesota food shelves and other food delivery programs. "But I'm a fan any time you can remove barriers that get in the way of access to food for those in need."
For students such as Elmore, the food shelf is a godsend. It provides her with hot lunches she can take to her afternoon job and additional items she'd ordinarily have to forgo. Recently, she was in the Champlin Park conference room that houses the food shelf. She loaded up a grocery sack with such items as portable soup, instant mashed potatoes, paper towels, toothpaste and tampons. They were free for her to take, no questions asked.
"There are times when I don't have the money to get what I need; toilet paper, dish soap, body wash, and just food sometime," she said. "So, I have to come here."
As many as 60 kids a week will use the Champlin Park food shelf, said school guidance counselor Amy Harnack, who started up the food shelf last September. "I saw at least 10 to 15 in there today," Harnack said last week.
In January, food shelves were set up in Blaine High School and Coon Rapids High School. A fourth Anoka-Hennepin district high school, Andover, has had one for four years.
Blaine assistant principal Jerri McGonigal estimates that the school food shelf there has a dozen weekly users. Coon Rapids assistant principal Terry Johnson estimates 20 regulars. Andover officials said they don't track the numbers of students who use their food shelf.
Stocked with donations from student food drives, the community and the occasional corporate donor, these food shelves are the creations of staff who have watched as the number of kids mired in poverty has mushroomed at their schools.
Advantages to the locale
The operators say school food shelves have some advantages over the estimated 300 community counterparts scattered throughout the state. For one thing, there's no need for a car to get you to the food shelf. For another, there's the personal touch.
"A lot of these kids are here," said Coon Rapids' Johnson. "It's accessible. It's a lot more personal. It's a lot easier for us to say, 'Hey, can we give you a helping hand?' It feels more like home."
The number of Minnesota kids who are going hungry or poor enough to be at risk of going hungry has been soaring, especially over the past few years. Much of this has been fueled by the recession.
Family members have "lost a lot of jobs," said Anna Wilken, Andover High School student learning advocate. "Their families went down to one income. They've been struggling. It's kind of happening all over."
Their needs can be poignant. Harnack recalled giving some toilet paper to a parent, who burst into tears. "It was like gold to her," Harnack said. "She had been rationing the toilet paper. Three squares a kid. It's just constant, families and stories like that."
According to U.S. census figures, the number of Minnesotans under 17 in poverty rose from 9.6 percent in 1999 to 12.8 percent in 2009. In Anoka County, home to three of the Anoka-Hennepin schools with permanent food shelves, there was a 46 percent increase in the number of children using community food shelves between 2008 and 2010, according to Greater Twin Cities United Way statistics.
Hungry students can be a shadow population at schools, sometimes too embarrassed to ask for help or participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs.
"Walking through the hallway in the day, you don't think about it," said Coon Rapids High sophomore Ali Johnston, who was helping Johnson stock the food shelf earlier this month. "But at the end of last year I met a friend and he had a box of food in his hand."
At Coon Rapids, the room with the food shelf is locked and away from the main halls. Once a student is identified as needing food, the student is escorted by a staff member to the room, and allowed to fill up one of the backpacks hanging on hooks. After the student leaves, the staff member brings the filled backpack to an office, where the student picks it up at the end of the day.
Other schools have responded to hunger needs. Some elementary schools in St. Paul have permanent food shelves, and Target Corp., in conjunction with Second Harvest Heartland, has launched a pilot project to distribute food several times a year to families at five public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Community food shelves, which dole out the lion's share of free food in Minnesota, continue to offer such advantages as being able to offer frozen meats and fresh produce.
"Even if they have refrigeration capacity in the schools, then the issue is how long is it going to sit in someone's backpack or locker?" said Byron Laher, executive director of the Community Emergency Assistance Program (CEAP), which runs three food shelves in the north Twin Cities metro area, and serves 1,000 to 1,200 families a month. But, according to community food assistance officials, food shelves located permanently in schools could be an idea whose time has come.
"The logical extension into the schools of food shelves makes some sense," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the St. Paul-based Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "In the school setting, the access to kids who need that kind of service is right there."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547