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Hard times: Food shelf usage up in area

Ruth Gruber (left) is assisted by Geri Fortin (right), a volunteer, at the St. Vincent De Paul on Monday. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

As the economy's vise tightens on area residents, more have been turning to food shelves for sustenance. Numbers are up around the region, and charities say they expect the situation to get worse before it improves.

At the East Grand Forks Food Shelf, the number of households receiving assistance increased more than 18 percent from 2007-08, though in recent months, food-shelf usage has held steady.

Operations manager Cristina Campos said many clients of the food shelf -- which serves the Grand Cities and the Minnesota communities of Fisher, Bygland, Alvarado and Oslo -- have lost their jobs.

"That's when we start serving those households twice a month, so they can get back on their feet," she said.

The North Country Food Bank in Crookston, which supplies the East Grand Forks Food Shelf, set an all-time record in the last quarter of 2008 for the amount of food it delivered -- 335 tons -- to food shelves and soup kitchens in Grand Forks and 21 counties in northwestern Minnesota. During the same quarter in 2007, they provided about 250 tons.

The food bank's executive director Susie Novak said calls from charities concerned about their food supplies have been pouring in, particularly from those in towns hit by layoffs.

"It's a common occurrence, and it's everywhere," she said. "Unfortunately, it appears it may get worse before it gets better."

Novak was in Perham, Minn., on Monday surveying food-shelf users as part of a national study. She said people gave various reasons for seeking help with groceries, including medical expenses, lack of employment, transportation costs and more relatives living with them.

All those factors brought Brooke, 50, and her husband, Jim, 58, to the food shelf tucked behind the St. Vincent De Paul thrift store in Grand Forks. As Brooke put it, "It just doesn't end. It's one thing after another."

The couple, who declined to give their last name, was among a stream of folks who came through the pantry Monday afternoon, stocking up on canned goods, produce and other groceries.

Tawnia Hoidahl-Larsen, St. Vincent De Paul's assistant director, said the food shelf has lately been serving many more first-time users. She said layoffs and under-employment have exacted a toll.

"If these families are living paycheck to paycheck and just getting by, that small loss can cause them crisis," she said.

Hoidahl-Larsen said most clients seek assistance during emergencies and don't pick up food every month.

"People really don't want to be here," she said. "This isn't their ultimate destination."

Skyrocketing fuel and food costs in 2008 prompted many to seek help from St. Vincent De Paul, contributing to a 7 percent increase in clients, according to the charity.

The Great Plains Food Bank in Fargo, which supplies St. Vincent De Paul and some 200 other feeding programs in North Dakota and Clay County, Minn., said its preliminary 2008 stats show a 5.6 percent increase statewide, with the Fargo-Moorhead area experiencing a 15.9 percent uptick.

"It is directly related to the economic challenges that people in our community are facing," said Marcia Paulson, the food bank's director of marketing and development. "Guts are saying times aren't going to be turning around soon based on what's happening around the nation."