Sunday, October 4, 2009

Need is great and growing at Catholic Charities food shelves

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Unprecedented demand calls for unprecedented efforts to meet it.

If you wonder whether the economy is growing fast enough to end the recession, come to the food shelf at Catholic Charities on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis: Business is booming.

"We've never seen anything like this," says Jim Durdle, emergency services manager at the Branch I of Catholic Charities. "What we've seen this fall? Well, let me just say we never thought it could happen. We've never seen these numbers before."

The number of south Minneapolis households relying on the food shelf to stretch tight budgets to the end of each month nearly has doubled during the past year. Three hundred families visited the food shelf in September 2008. This September, there were almost 600 separate households who sought help. And with unemployment expected to rise into next year, the numbers are not going to go down.

As was reported Tuesday in the Star Tribune, there are worrisome signs that the number of Minnesotans sinking into poverty and needing to rely upon food stamps and food shelves may be about to explode:

Visits to food shelves exceeded 2 million for the first time last year, the number of households using food stamps shot up by 30 percent (one in 12 Minnesotans uses food stamps), and the full effect of growing joblessness, homelessness, hunger and government budget cuts are yet to be calculated.

Wednesday's news was more disturbing:

The number of Minnesota kids living in poverty increased about 25 percent between 2001 and last year, and the number of poor children is thought to be rising rapidly now as layoffs continue, unemployment benefits run out and an economic recovery still seems months or even years away. There may be as many as 180,000 Minnesota children living in poverty (four times the capacity of the Twins' new stadium), according to the Children's Defense Fund. And if that number hits 200,000 -- twice the number of poor children as there were eight years ago -- few will be surprised.

Whatever the number turns out to be, here's a safe bet: The kids are hungry.

And here's a scary thing: Many of their parents are working harder than ever.

"Most of the families who come here are working," says Arlene Chosa, food shelf coordinator at Branch I for 16 years. "It's just that they can't make it through the whole month. They are getting fewer hours or less pay, and the cost of everything has gone up. Then, of course, there are the people who have recently been laid off."

Research has shown, Durdle says, that even with the help of food shelves and food stamps, many of the working poor are forced to skip meals.

I spoke with a woman named Carmen who was visiting the food shelf for the first time and filling out a "shopping list" of items she was requesting while her children waited. Carmen's husband, a landscaper, has had little work this fall, and much of the family's income has been spent on medicine for a sick baby.

"We are not that bad off, and the little I get here will help us get by," she said. "I just am hoping to get some things I don't have at home now."

The average client goes home with about 55 pounds of groceries, three or four bags full. More than a ton of food a day is being handed out at this small food shelf, with the monthly total of free food having doubled in the past year from 16,000 pounds in 2008 to 32,000 pounds last month. There is no sign that the needs will decline.

The strains on the social safety net continue to grow: At the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul (also run by Catholic Charities), almost 600 meals are being served daily, and the shelter is crowded to capacity.

"We're seeing an unprecedented level of demand at our emergency services," says Rebecca Lentz, communications director for Catholic Charities. "It's a 'perfect storm' of troubles," she added, referring to unemployment, government cuts and the weak economy that, in turn, have produced a downturn in private contributions just as the needs have risen. (Donations to Catholic Charities were down 10 percent from the previous period for the year that ended June 30.)

To volunteer, find out how to lead a food drive or contribute cash (each $1 buys $9 worth of food), go to www.cctwincities.org.

Just nine months ago, I reported the recommendations of the Legislative Commission to End Poverty. It had joined a broad coalition of religious groups, including Catholic Charities, to announce a plan to end poverty in Minnesota by 2020. Less than a year later, poverty has made a huge comeback and threatens to overwhelm the anti-poverty forces.

"Everyone has to help," says Lentz. "Everyone has to own their part in this. It's not just 'our' problem or 'their' problem. It's everyone's problem."

Now, more than ever. Nick Coleman, Star Tribune

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