WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published July 08, 2012, 01:11 PM

Bemidji Food Shelf Feels Squeeze

BEMIDJI — The number of children served through the Bemidji Community Food Shelf this year is up 36 percent since this time last year. That equates to an increase of more than 2,000 children.

By: Bethany Wesley, Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — The number of children served through the Bemidji Community Food Shelf this year is up 36 percent since this time last year.

That equates to an increase of more than 2,000 children.

“So many kids are struggling through summer,” said Jack Judkins, coordinator of the food shelf.

A challenge grant this month has the potential of giving the food shelf up to $8,000 to address the food needs of area residents.

Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless during July is matching up to $4,000 in financial donations from the community.

“Too many kids in Minnesota have to worry about where their lunch will come from once school is out,” Ann Yetter, executive director of Open Your Heart, said in a press release. “Open Your Heart is committed to making sure all of our kids get enough to eat this summer and we hope people across the state will join us.”

To date, Bemidji food shelf use is way up from last year, which itself was a record-setting year.

The total number of families that were served through July 2 was 4,853, up 22 percent compared to the same timeframe in 2011.

The total number of people served is 16,454, up 4,050 people, or 33 percent.

“Last year was an all-time high, and this is just dwarfing that,” Judkins said.

The numbers to date show the composition of families is changing; more and more families are moving in together.

Statewide, one in five Minnesota children faces hunger or food insecurity, according to Hunger Solutions.

Of more than 600,000 Minnesota students who eat school lunch, more than 47 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch prices, according to the Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota.

A federally funded Summer Food Service Program is available for those students in the summertime, but the program is underperforming, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

An average of 45,500 children ate their weekday lunches in 2011 at the meal sites, it noted. About 14 of 100 eligible children are taking advantage of the program.

Locally, the food program is offered at sites such as Bemidji Middle School, Cass Lake elementary and middle school, and the Boys and Girls clubs in Bemidji, Ponemah and Red Lake.

Judkins said he can see children’s hunger needs at the food shelf. Based on 2012 figures to date, he is able to project that by the end of 2012, the food shelf will serve an additional 1,200 families compared to 2011 and 5,500 more people, including 2,600 more children.

“And these (numbers) are very conservative,” he said.

Further complicating matters is that the cost of food continues to increase.

“We’re experiencing greatly increasing demand while the availability and price of food is becoming more challenging,” Judkins said.

Bill Beyer, president of the food shelf, said the federal stimulus bill in 2009 made available more money. At that time, the food shelf was able to get free ground beef and other meats, such as chicken.

“That’s done now,” Beyer said. “That’s wiped out.”

And threats of future cuts loom. This spring, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed cutting $133.5 billion from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which provides food to low-income Americans in need of short-term hunger relief through food banks, over the next 10 years.

The food shelf now has to pay around $2.35 a pound for hamburger. Instead, Judkins said, it offers ground turkey, which is around $1.50 a pound.

“That’s still expensive for us but it’s still affordable and it’s a good source of protein,” Judkins said.

Keeping peanut butter available on the shelves also has continued to be a challenge.

The Paul Bunyan Mall earlier this spring asked for donations through its Peanut Butter Project, bringing in 1,600 pounds of peanut butter.

Recently, Marketplace Foods offered the food shelf a “great deal” on peanut butter so the food shelf purchased 50 cases, Judkins noted.

“It had before been a (USDA) commodity item so we didn’t have to pay for it,” Judkins said. “But that’s not happening anymore.”

‘We’re really pushed’

A new site is expected to ease some of the burden and pressure put on the food shelf.

The Bemidji Community Food Shelf has a purchase agreement in place for the old ODC building, 1260 Industrial Park Drive SE.

Not only will the new building — about six times larger than its current space — allow the food shelf to consolidate about a half-dozen storage locations, but it also will feature a walk-in cooler.

The cooler will keep produce fresh longer, making it more available for clients.

Beyer said agricultural businesses have indicated a desire to donate 2½ million pounds each of sweet corn and potatoes to Minnesota food banks.

Bemidji was asked just how much corn it could handle, but without coolers, Beyer said, the food shelf can’t take in as much as it available.

“If we were to have a walk-in cooler, it would be so much easier to say that we could take 36 (totes),” he said, referencing the large containers that display in grocery stores, for example, watermelons.

With other foods, like bananas, he said, the food shelf really has only about two working days — it is generally open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — before they go bad.

“We’re really pushed where we are when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Beyer said. “With our new space, we’ll be able to do much more.”

The food shelf has applied for a $300,000 low-interest loan through USDA Rural Development. If the application is successful, Beyer noted, the costs will be lower than those for rent.

“That building will improve our cash flow significantly,” Judkins said. “That’s just turned around and invested right into food.”

Additionally, the food shelf now is halfway toward its goal of matching a $100,000 grant from the George W. Neilson Foundation.

“We’re confident that we’ll be able to match that,” Beyer said, noting that the food shelf hopes to be fully operational in its new location in late fall.