For Michelle Christianson, the phrase "working poor" is not an abstract concept. About a year ago, her family began relying on a Catholic Charities food shelf in her neighborhood to supplement their meals. She stops by once a month for two bags of groceries -- cereal, canned goods, sometimes meat and juice.

For many families, unexpected expenses can derail an entire budget. For families with school-age kids that use food shelves, summer vacations as well as spring and Christmas breaks add financial pressure. When children's free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at school become the family's responsibility for a week, the food budget goes off track.

Working families are feeling squeezed with gas and housing prices going up, said the Rev. John Estrem, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They need something to tide them over, he said. "A family of four making $21,000 a year is not considered poor, according to the government's definition," he said.

Minnesota FoodShare kicked off its giving campaign this month to restock the organization's more than 300 statewide food shelves.

The holiday-giving surplus formerly held out through March, said Sue Kainz, the March campaign coordinator for Minnesota FoodShare. "This year, the holiday donations were nearly gone in February, something that hasn't happened before," Kainz said.

Food shelf use has risen each year for most of the past decade. Minnesota FoodShare saw increases in 2000, although usage fell amid the strong economy of 1996 through 1999.

Many users are from working families and go to food shelves one to four times a year. Half of the recipients are under age 18 in families with one or both parents working. Twenty-five percent are elderly and another 20 percent are disabled or unemployable, often with mental illness, said Kainz. Because most of the food given away at food shelves needs some sort of preparation, homeless people are usually redirected to soup kitchens or homeless shelters.

A working family on the edge

Going to a food shelf bothers Christianson, who shops at Aldi for groceries not supplemented by Catholic Charities. "We're not all deadbeats trying to live off the government," she said. "People think that we don't appreciate what we get, but we do."

Her husband, a maintenance man for several apartment buildings, brings home about $1,000 per month after taxes and child support from a previous marriage. Nearly 40 percent of that goes to a car payment, insurance and phone service. They live rent-free in a two-bedroom Minneapolis apartment (the rent is considered part of her husband's salary) with their 7-year-old son. Michelle doesn't work outside the home because she's concerned about the care that her ADHD son might get. Health care isn't provided by her husband's employer, and the family's income is too high to qualify for the state health-insurance pool.

She shops at Wal-Mart to save money on essentials, gets her clothes at the Marie Sandvik mission in Minneapolis and buys her son's clothes on sale. Shampoo and soap are purchased at dollar stores. Haircuts are done at home. Entertainment might include a movie on network TV (no cable), board games, fishing or a walk to the park.

Having a nice home-cooked dinner such as enchiladas or lasagna is a special occasion. The family can rarely afford meat, cheese or fresh produce.

Changes at food shelves

Sometimes, Christianson can get produce from the food shelf. Services such as Catholic Charities have tried to improve nutrition by adding fresh produce one day a week for monthly clients. The types of food being offered are changing in other ways, too. Charities have tried to be more culturally sensitive to Hispanic, Asian and Somali tastes by including more rice, beans and tortillas and fewer potatoes. But ironically, an African food shelf in north Minneapolis often finds that families ask for "Americanized" food. Mothers want to serve what their children ask for, which is usually the same as what they're eating in school, said Kainz.

In the past, many food shelves would preselect items for their clients. Now many clients choose food themselves from the shelf's pantry and often take less than what they would have been given, said Kainz. One client told Kainz that her family didn't need any more peanut butter. They already had 10 jars at home. She brought back the extras.

Christianson doesn't get a sermon when she shops at the Catholic Charities food shelf. Most recipients are asked only basic information such as name and address to make sure they are getting assistance from the location closest to them. "We don't ask 'Why are you here?'" said Estrem. Many food shelves ask only a person's age.

For Christianson, once she made the big gulp and went to the Catholic Charities food shelf for the first time, she found it a comfort and a relief. "The people were very kind. When I told them that we have a son, they gave him a book bag with school supplies the next time we went," she said.

Estrem and Kainz are thankful that Minnesotans have always been so generous to food shelves. Estrem paraphrased Hubert Humphrey by saying that a society is reflected in how it cares for its less fortunate.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or His articles are online at