Hardships lead to an increase in Willmar Area Food Shelf usage
WILLMAR -- If the need for help to put food on the table is any indication of how the sour economy is impacting families, then Kandiyohi County could be seeing a new level of poverty and hunger.
In the last two years, the Willmar Area Food Shelf experienced a 75 percent increase in the number of families receiving emergency food supplies.
Last year 8,091 families were served, sharing 814,165 pounds of free food -- the equivalent of nearly 27 semitrailers full of food. An average of 674 households a month used the food shelf in 2010.
The average monthly usage was 60 families when the food shelf began 29 years ago.
"Unfortunately the fight against hunger and the need for the WAFS (Willmar Area Food Shelf) is even greater 29 years later," said Christie Kurth, the food shelf's executive director.
In a report Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, Kurth said since opening in 1982 there was "modest" growth in usage of the food shelf.
In 2005 there was an average of 323 families served every month.
The numbers started spiking in December of 2007 and soared through 2009.
There was a 15 percent increase in the number of families from 2009 to 2010 to reach the current monthly average of 674 families.
"This is a huge, huge increase, Kurth said.
Fortunately, the response from the community has matched the need.
Kurth said 81 percent of the food shelf's $240,657 revenue for last year came from local donors, including individuals, churches, United Way, civic and community organizations, grants, the county and local businesses.
About 26 percent of funding comes from individuals, 25 percent from churches and 16 percent from local businesses, Kurth said.
"That says a lot about our community and the way they support us," Kurth said.
Because of the increased demand on the food shelf, Kurth said they intend to start a capital campaign to remodel their existing facility and expand programs to meet nutritional needs of children, seniors and homebound individuals.
A satellite facility that opened in 2009 in New London to serve residents in the northern part of the county currently serves 51 families a month, she said.
Qualifying recipients can get food once a month from one of the two food shelf sites, she said.
While families are struggling to buy food, the county will have $30,000 less in funding to provide emergency assistance to families with young children in the home.
Federal stimulus funding helped the county extend emergency assistance to more families last year. Those funds were cut and the program's criteria was tightened up, said Barb Kavanagh, family services supervisor.
"We're watching those dollars very, very closely," she said. "It'll be a challenge to assist the most needy during a time of crisis."
Family Services Director Jay Kieft said the federal guidelines for determining poverty are based on a 1955 food basket model that's "flawed" for today's economy. Many programs use the poverty guideline to determine if people qualify for assistance.
Kieft said children are the ones who feel the "consequences of poverty" the most.
In a related report, Debi Brandt, community services director at the Heartland Community Action Agency, told the Commissioners about programs that help county food support recipients stretch their food dollar through various programs, including a "kitchen kamp" class that helps minor teen parents learn how to cook meals from scratch and to shop for grocery store staples.
She said Heartland also helps senior citizens fill out applications to receive county food support services.
Getting that sector of the population to apply for food support is difficult, said Brandt, even though they financially qualify and some are sacrificing groceries in order to pay for medicine.
Pride and resistance to accepting money for groceries prevents some from filing the food support, said Brandt, even though those same individuals eagerly sign up for other programs like energy assistance.
The fact that some may only qualify for the minimum $16 monthly allocation may make some wonder if it's worth it, but Brandt said the funds can be saved from month to month, and she said even $16 can help purchase important staples to keep seniors eating well. She said Heartland also has a video to help teacher seniors how to use the electronic benefit transfer card at the grocery store.
Some seniors are more receptive to applying for food assistance once they learn that the program is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.