Human Services commissioner praises county food support
WILLMAR -- When it comes to making sure people -- especially senior citizens -- get food so they don't go hungry, Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said she likes what's happening in Kandiyohi County
Jesson spent Friday in Willmar learning how the county family service department teams up with community partners to enhance food support outreach.
The methods used here, she said, may be replicated as part of a statewide initiative that's targeted at increasing food support to senior citizens who are financially eligible to receive assistance but are reluctant to seek government assistance.
"We really do have thousands of Minnesotans, especially seniors, who are still going hungry," said Jesson. "Having people not go hungry -- that's a Minnesota value."
She said 42 percent of Minnesota's seniors that are eligible for food support currently receive it.
"We know a lot of them aren't taking advantage of it and they need the help, especially those who are ill," said Jesson, adding that seniors have to make "hard choices" on whether to buy groceries or prescription drugs.
She said the state hasn't done a good job of signing up eligible individuals and families for food support.
"That hurts families. That hurts kids," she said.
Jesson said outreach efforts in Kandiyohi County, like going to senior centers and working with nurse block grant programs, have increased awareness of the food support program among seniors. She said she'd like to see the state work with faith communities to help get the word out to more seniors.
She also praised the county for making the food support application process less intimidating and for allowing applications to be made over the telephone. The streamlined process means eligible people can receive food the same day they apply.
Willmar is also a leader in enhancing access to fresh fruits and vegetables for people on food support. Last year there were only six farmer's markets in Minnesota that accepted food support EBT cards -- two of them in Willmar. By the end of the year it's hoped that 17 farmer's markets around the state will do the same.
"We're really expanding that, but again it's something Willmar has been out in front on," said Jesson. "I'm totally impressed with the work that's going on here."
Participation in the food support program in Kandiyohi County nearly doubled from 2006 to 2010. Some of rise is because the crumbling economy has increased the need for food assistance, but it's also because the county has been "doing a better job" than most counties in educating low-income families about the value of having access to nutritious food as part of their total health care, said Jesson.
If people aren't hungry they'll stay healthy and "stay off big programs that costs taxpayers a lot of money," said Jesson, calling food support a "very cost effective program."
She was also intrigued by a unique program called "Kitchen Kamp" that's sponsored by a number of local agencies combines, food support, good nutrition and basic cooking skills that's been especially well-received by young mothers. It's a program she wants to start in her own St. Paul church.
While it's important to expand food support to people who need it, Jesson said she's keenly aware of the need to make sure fraud is prevented
In the last month the state began "a big push" to work with counties and the Inspector General's office to make sure fraud is investigated vigorously. "Every dollar spent in a wrong way is a dollar that isn't spent on people who need it," she said.