Ground Level

Up Close: Hunger in Minnesota

UpClose is a Ground Level feature offering quick looks at Minnesotans taking action on issues in their communities.

Click on the names below to see their stories.

Lydia Olsen

Lydia Olsen was just 22 years old when she found a way to feed hungry kids in Watonwan County.

Olsen saw an article in a local newspaper about the federally-funded Summer Food Service Program and thought: "We need that."

Olsen and her colleagues in Community Education worked with area schools to launch three sites offering free food for kids in Watonwan County -- one each in St. James, Madelia, and Butterfield-Odin school districts.

Olsen had worked with low-income families in St. James and saw that many needed help with summer food. "It's not discussed very openly, but the kids will tell me, 'We didn't have dinner last night,' or 'We had to share what we usually have on our own; me and my brother shared it,'" Olsen recalled.

All over the state, families that rely on school meals to feed their kids during the year sometimes struggle to afford enough nutritious food when kids are home for break. Last year, 107 groups signed up to provide free summer food, serving an all-time high of 1.7 million meals. Education officials say the state needs still more sites, especially outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area

One of the hardest things was getting children to the lunchroom. Olsen was able to help children who live in a nearby mobile home park. Like a pied piper, she led them across railroad tracks and busy intersections once a week.

"It's just like a school bus, only we walked," Olsen said. "We had leaders at the front and the back, and kids in between."

Anyone could come, regardless of income. In that way, Olsen said, eating free food in the summer didn't carry a stigma. But it helped low-income families stretch their food budgets, saving the money they might have used for lunch, and putting it toward dinner.

Dan Farm

Dan Farm remembers exactly when he realized something had to be done.

Farm, a pastor at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester, was visiting the nearby Bamber Valley Elementary School to discuss starting a tutoring program. He and another church leader sat waiting for the principal.

"As we were waiting there, I watched a young boy come in who was just in a sweatshirt with holes in it, and he had these tattered tennis shoes on with holes in them," Farm recalled. "I'm looking at them, and I can see his feet. I can literally see skin, and he's walking through the snow."

After Principal Becky Gerdes arrived, they began to discuss the tutoring program. Farm couldn't take it.

"Finally I just said, 'You know what, I can't even talk about this,' " Farm recalled. "' I just saw a little boy out there who's in the middle of this snowstorm in a sweatshirt and tattered shoes.' "

Gerdes told him that many kids needed warmer clothes -- and that some didn't even have enough to eat over the weekend.

Shortly thereafter, Autumn Ridge and Channel One Food Bank created a backpack program for Barber Valley and a nearby school. Altogether, 75 kids go home each week with backpacks full of fruit cups, granola bars, and other food. The church takes care of packing the bags and also covers much of the cost.

Scattered schools across the state have started similar programs. The programs are designed to help families who rely on school lunch programs during the week and have a hard time making ends meet when kids are away from school.

Mustafa Sundiata

The number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves is on the rise, and Mustafa Sundiata is doing all he can to make sure the experience is as pleasant as possible.

Food shelf visits jumped 62 percent between the fall of 2008 and last fall. Many people are seeking help for the first time. Plenty never thought they'd need such help; some donated to food shelves in the past.

Sundiata runs the NorthPoint Community Food Shelf in Minneapolis -- just a small room, in a basement -- where the food is a lifeline for some 33,000 people each year.

He sees many people hit by the economic downturn. "We do a good job of hiding our problems, but the need is very, very high," he says. "These days it's truly a choice between food and medicine, food and transportation, food and paying your health insurance."

Sundiata welcomes clients to a basement room packed with soup, pasta, even produce. He's implemented a system in which visitors shop for their food (previously visitors got a box of pre-selected items). He's pushed for healthier and more culturally-specific items.

The goal, he says, is to create a system in which there is great dignity, where there is no stigma. He wants the experience to be like going to the grocery store, he said.

So far, despite the increase in need, he's never had to send anyone away.

"Turning someone away is my last resort," he says. "I hope to never get to that."

Terry Hassan

It can be hard to convince Minnesota's seniors to sign up for food stamps, but Terry Hassan is not easily deterred.

Hassan, community outreach coordinator at the Scott-Carver-Dakota CAP Agency, is one of many outreach workers across the state trying to convince older Minnesotans that food stamp benefits, now called Food Support in Minnesota, are for them.

She talks with seniors who come to her for other kinds of help. She goes to senior dining centers. She sits and helps people fill out applications. Over and over, she hands out brochures and explains to seniors who are struggling to make ends meet that Food Support can help.

"Oftentimes they have the mistaken notion that if they don't take it, they're leaving it for someone else," she said. "They feel like they can sacrifice their own hunger for other people to be able to eat. That's not the case."

Many seniors are also unaware they qualify for the program, she said, or hesitant to sign up because of stigma. They worry everyone in the grocery store will see them using food stamps. Hassan is trying to dispel those rumors.

State officials estimate that only one in four Minnesota seniors eligible for Food Support program is enrolled, slightly below the national average. Hassan tells low-income seniors they've earned some help by paying taxes for years.

"If I have a fire in my house, am I going to say, 'I'm too good to call the fire department?'" she asked. "No. I need help. This is what the government is for, the community good. We've all contributed money into it, and it's there if we need it."