The recession's forced us to scrap many outdated assumptions about job security, savings, and the poor. How about who goes to food shelves? Chances are these days, it's one of your neighbors.
"We are seeing lots of people who are new to hunger, and a growing number of young children in hungry households," said Jennifer Schultz, congregational administrator for Northeast Community Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and coordinator for the church's Little Kitchen Food Shelf.
"We have seen a steady increase in hunger over the past two years, and we expect this to continue over the next two years as well, while we wait for the 'trickle down' of economic improvements to benefit those suffering the most ... The growing avalanche of people sliding from lower-middle class to below the poverty line shows no sign of slowing down."
Little Kitchen serves many people who don't yet have, or can't get, access to food through social services and the better-funded food shelves, Schultz, a source in MPR's Public Insight Network, told us recently.
I've gotten to know many of them and I'm familiar with their stories. A small portion of visitors, less than 10%, are homeless and/or struggling with chemical dependency issues. Because there is a Seniors food shelf nearby, only about 5% of visitors are over 55.
More than half of the individuals we feed are children; the majority of households served include two or more children, most of them either under 8 or over 13 years of age (MN poverty statistics indicate that children under 5 are among the fastest growing populations of those struggling with homelessness and poverty.)
Single adults tend to fall into those under-ten-percent categories I already mentioned, with the addition of persons with disabilities.
Families are hardest hit; the poor are getting poorer, and those who struggled to maintain stability before are now losing jobs, losing homes, and leaving behind marginal stability for a lifestyle of "high mobility" - they change addresses frequently because they can't make rent, they stay with relatives, they send their children to stay with relatives, and for the first time they are visiting food shelves to make ends meet.
The majority of our households with children contain two or more adults; usually at least one of these is doing some sort of work for pay.
The church started the food shelf two years ago to meet the needs of homeless in Northeast Minneapolis. These days, Schultz figures at least half the people who come to Little Kitchen are not currently receiving any emergency aid.
"My sense is that most people do not consider the food shelf an option when they first begin to lose ground financially," she said.
"Until recently, most people only thought about food shelves during the holidays, at charity giving times, and very few people would have known how to find a food shelf in their community."
Many of those who come to Little Kitchen today, "take pains to tell me they are looking for work, or have a partner who works; many come only 'as often as they have to,' rather than as often as we will serve them. "