When the doors of the ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka opened at 11:30 a.m. last Monday, 20 people were standing in line or waiting in cars.

Some headed for racks at the front of the store where there were shelves of bread and bananas, while others signed in, having already scheduled appointments.

Economic distress is nothing new for some people in the Twin Cities suburbs, but the growth in clientele at the ICA, located in a small industrial strip mall, reflects the financial difficulties many people now experience despite state statistics showing lower unemployment rates.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, the number of clientele who have paid a visit to the ICA Food Shelf has grown from 3,256 to 5,737.

“People are struggling,” says Peg Keenan, the food shelf’s executive director. There’s more poverty, and people are having a difficult time getting jobs at the same pay levels they’re used to, she said. “We have clients who are working two to three jobs, but not a livable wage, and with no health care or benefits.”

The ICA Food Shelf serves seven western Twin Cities communities — Hopkins, Minnetonka, Woodland, Deephaven, Greenwood, Excelsior and Shorewood. Set up like a grocery store, many clients show up by appointment and search the aisles, pushing a grocery basket. Volunteers help them find products. Instructions on the shelves tell people how many items they can select, based on the size of their household.

Lilia Coronel’s 2005 Nissan Altima would not start Monday morning, so a friend drove her to the food shelf. “I can’t buy enough food [at local stores] because I only work part-time,” said Coronel, 35, of Hopkins, who has a 5-year-old son. “My refrigerator is almost empty now.” She said she earns $12 an hour as a janitor, working 25 hours a week. Her food stamp allotment was cut this year from $180 to $90 a month. “I don’t know why,” she said.

Among the items that went into her basket: a plantain, eggs, canned fruit, a bag of peppers and some frozen meats. Because of limits in what she can take from the food shelf, she said she planned to go to Aldi’s to buy some additional fruits and vegetables.

ICA stands for Intercongregation Communities Association, reflecting the churches that once sponsored it, said Keenan. The food shelf is now supported by a broader group that includes congregations, community members and local businesses, she said. It has an annual operating budget of $1.4 million and receives $3.1 million in food donations. Some 55 percent of the food comes from a “food rescue operation.” Volunteers go to 13 local grocery stores, picking up produce, dairy products and meats.

Fifty volunteers turn up daily to go through the food to weed out produce that’s too old and also help clients navigate the food shelf, Keenan said.

A survey of 374 clients in June found that underemployment was the single biggest reason people had come to the food shelf, followed by job loss or a medical crisis.

Relate Counseling Center, based in Minnetonka, offers nine hours of free counseling services to food shelf users a week, the costs of it borne by Relate and ICA, said Aaron Rusnak, a therapist there. “We’re finding people who come from multi-stressed lives that includes economic stress,” he said. The economic troubles puts stress on relationships, he said.

He counseled one family who had significant debt from an after-school child care program. The family was worried because the program was going to stop taking a child, he said, but he worked with the manager of the program to allow the family to pay off the debt in smaller amounts so the child could continue to attend.

On Monday, Caryn Jerry, 31, of Minnetonka, was searching a shelf for canned goods. Her 2-year-old daughter, Tay’ah, sat in the shopping cart. She said she was a secretary at North Memorial Medical Center and has been coming to the food shelf for about a year after there were layoffs at the hospital and her hours were cut to part-time.

She said she is a single mother with four children. “It’s great food,” she said of the food shelf’s supplies. “The No. 1 top thing is the frozen meats.”

Galina Khoshzabana, 65, who is unemployed, said she has been coming to the food shelf for four years. Russian by birth, she is living with her 76-year-old boyfriend and has lived in Minnetonka five years.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Khoshzabana told Michaels, the program manager, who was standing nearby.

Khoshzabana has a university degree in music from Russia, but her English needs work, and she is studying English now so she can get a job.

“In six months, maybe I go to work and ICA, goodbye,” she said. In the meantime, she says, “I eat because I have ICA.”


Twitter @randyfurst