Providing hunger relief in the north metro

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2013 - 3:20 PM

As the holiday season approaches, charities find ways to meet the wider need.

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Ron Koon, of the Centennial Community Food Shelf, inside the operation’s new home in the former police station in Circle Pines.

Photo: Centennial Community Food Shelf,

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Last year, when the Centennial Community Food Shelf added a program to supply needy schoolchildren with food to tide them over for the weekend, it became apparent that the place had run out of space.

The food shelf has operated out of the basement of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Circle Pines since the mid-’80s.

Ron Koon, president of the volunteer-run food shelf, said a tour of another facility running a similar program out of a municipal-type building “got us to thinking.” Around the same time, Centennial stumbled upon a vacant space at the Circle Pines City Hall which once housed the police department.

The place was ideal, close to where many of Centennial’s clients live, he said. So the food shelf worked out a lease agreement with the city, and last week Centennial settled into its new digs.

Saturday, Nov. 23, the food shelf is hosting an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. It includes a dedication ceremony and building tours.

The facility represents a major upgrade for the food shelf, including at least four times the square footage.

Until now, the food shelf had to make do with a cramped pantry. On distribution days, volunteers “borrowed” the hallway and a couple of classrooms. They had to take paperwork home with them, Koon said.

Now, the food shelf — which incorporated as a nonprofit organization last year — has a reception area, space for food storage, including separate rooms for non-perishables, breads and refrigerator goods, and an office that allows for small group meetings. Volunteers can even stow their coats and bags in a secure room.

That’s a luxury, considering that before they “had to shove their belongings into corners where they were working,” he said.

An attached two-car garage makes deliveries easier, especially in the winter, and the food shelf is equipped to handle more volume, Koon said. Clients also can come in and “shop” for certain items according to their preferences, rather than “just us prepackaging everything,” he said.

An increasing need

Centennial’s move proves that “as the community has grown, so have the needs,” Koon said.

Peg McQuillan, a spokeswoman for the New Hope-based Emergency Foodshelf Network (EFN), a food bank, vouched for that. While the economic problems may be easing up for some, “It isn’t true for really poor people,” she said.

In fact, the need at area food shelves went up 11 percent last year, she said.

Anita Berg, EFN’s director of programs, attributes the state of affairs to a combination of factors. “One hypothesis is, with the recession and mortgage trouble, that there have been a lot of suburban homes that were caught in the housing crisis,” she said.

Even though unemployment across the state is down, “We’re seeing underemployment. Even though people are getting jobs, it’s not at the same wage level” that they once had.

Rising food costs and cuts to federal assistance are also putting pressure on people, she said. To help solve the problem, EFN works with various community partners on numerous food drives year-round.

Individuals, groups or businesses can also organize a food drive of their own on behalf of a local food shelf. They can also volunteer at EFN or donate money, McQuillan said.

Holiday meals

The needs tend to spike over the holidays, McQuillan said. In preparation for that, a number of local food shelves are putting together holiday meals.

For example, Southern Anoka Community Assistance (SACA), a food shelf in Columbia Heights, is asking people to donate groceries at the Cub Foods stores in Fridley and St. Anthony on Saturday, Dec. 7.

People can spend as much or as little as they want, said SACA manager Dave Rudolph. SACA representatives will be on hand at the stores from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., though the drive will run all day, he said.

Later on, volunteers at SACA will sort everything from Cub for the food shelf’s Christmas dinner and toy distribution in December.

This year the food shelf can only provide Christmas meals to 450 families compared with the normal 800, Rudolph said.

At the same time, the food shelf is seeing as many as 75 new faces each month, including more groups of adults who are pooling their resources.

“The need is still there. That’s the big thing. It doesn’t matter what community you’re in,” Rudolph said.

Holidays a stressful time

Tiffany Nguyen, the business manager at Community Emergency Assistance Programs (CEAP), which has offices in Brooklyn Center and Blaine, underscored the idea that holidays are “incredibly stressful for families with little discretionary income.”

Many people who arrive at CEAP are “struggling to meet their basic needs, deciding whether to pay the heating bill or put food on the table, let alone buy presents and holiday food,” she said.

Incomes aren’t stretching as much as they used to, while many of the increasing numbers of people turning to CEAP are working families. They’re dealing with an emergency situation, like a car breaking down or a family member in the hospital, Nguyen said.

She’s expecting cutbacks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously referred to as food stamps, to make matters worse.

“A family of four will have their benefits reduced by $36 every month” from what had been an average SNAP benefit of $410 a month per family. That’s $425 a year.

“That may not seem like a lot, but to someone who’s struggling it means the world,” she said, adding, “More cuts could be ahead.”

Hygiene items also needed

Shana Schmitz, the outreach director at the North Anoka County Emergency Food Shelf (NACE) in East Bethel, said she’s already starting to see the effects of SNAP cuts.

A local church is trying to help by collecting hygiene items, since SNAP dollars can’t be used for things like toothpaste and shampoo, she said.

In the first week of November alone, the food shelf saw 92 families, which is 30 more than its weekly average.

Right now, the food shelf is asking for canned beans and peanut butter. “We want to be able to provide a protein that people can add to rice or vegetables, to make a balanced meal,” she said.

The food shelf is also hosting a winter clothing drive. NACE’s clothing closet gives out coats, boots and other winter apparel, from October through February. In October, the closet distributed 118 coats.

“Replenishing gently used coats is an ongoing request,” she said.

 

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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