Panel addresses hunger in Hubbard County

Are there hungry children in Hubbard County? Yes. The League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area gathered a panel of experts Saturday to discuss what is being done to help these children and what more needs to be done. A nonpartisan grassroots organ...

Are there hungry children in Hubbard County?  Yes.  The League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area gathered a panel of experts Saturday to discuss what is being done to help these children and what more needs to be done. A nonpartisan grassroots organization, LWV Park Rapids Area aims to take action on issues affecting local families and communities.  “I can’t think of a better need than child hunger,” said Carolynne White, president of the local chapter. “Part of our premise is we know there are problems when a child is chronically hungry.”  

The discussion panel included Nicole Brandt from Food Angels; Leah Pigatti, executive director of MAHUBE-OTWA and Dodie Egge, a volunteer at the Hubbard County Food Shelf. Facilitator was Cindy Gonsolus, a LWV member.  Chronic hunger in children slows their brain development, White said, causing permanent damage. They have lower achievement scores and a lower IQ. They are sleepy, irritable, apathetic, sad and may feel hopeless.  

Food Angels - Food Angels provides a bag of food – entrees, milk, dairy, fruit and vegetables – for Century School families who don’t have enough to eat over the weekend.  During its first year of operation, Food Angels delivered 65 bags per week to kindergarteners through third graders.  Now in its second year, the program expanded to fourth graders and total enrollment skyrocketed to 175 bags per week.  The food comes from North Country Food Bank in Crookston. Each bag costs about $4.25, or $750 per week. A Blandin grant provided start-up funds. Donations from individuals and businesses support the program.  “It’s been wonderful to see the community embrace this for us,” Brandt said, a kindergarten teacher and Food Angels volunteer.  

Bags are packed with food Thursdays at 5 p.m. at Riverside Methodist Church by volunteer groups, then delivered to the school.  The bags are placed inside students’ backpacks on Fridays.  “We have extra-special angels who deliver backpacks for us,” said Brandt.  “I love Fridays for a new reason,” she said, describing how one of her students “with big, brown eyes” asks, “Is it a food day today?”  “And I get to say, ‘Yes.’ It just melts your heart. These children really need our help,” Brandt said.  At Century School, 60 percent of families qualify for the free/reduced lunch rate. That translates into 300 children who qualify for Food Angels.  Donations are welcome any time. The Park Rapids Rotary Club is launching a contribution drive, “Skip a Meal, Feed a Child,” to raise the estimated $30,000 needed to fund the project at current participation and cost.

MAHUBE-OTWA - One in five children live in poverty in Hubbard County, according to Pigatti.  Most families are working poor. They typically have two or more jobs to try to make ends meet, Pigatti said.  “Hunger is pretty invisible in young children,” she said. “Children don’t express it openly. Parents are ashamed to say they don’t have enough to eat and don’t know what to do about it.”  The average weekly cost of groceries for a family of four is $207, Pigatti said, or $828 per month.  Seventy-four percent of Hubbard County households who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program receive it. Administered by the state Department of Human Services, SNAP helps low-income Minnesotans. The monthly benefit is $345.  


“That’s good, but hardly enough to feed a family of four,” Pigatti noted.  She’s hopeful a mobile food drop, like those advocated by Hunger Solutions Minnesota, will be started in Hubbard County.  Trucks packed with food visit a community and people wait in line to receive it.  “I think very few people would stand in line for a couple bags of food if they didn’t need it,” she observed.  An audience member said he had heard a person can get $42,000 a year from welfare.  “It’s a myth. It’s not true. I get irritated when I hear that,” Pigatti said.  In her 30 years of service, Pigatti said she’s only encountered a few people who wanted to rip off the system.  “If you’re living off public assistance, you are really poor.”

Food shelves - In the first 10 months of 2015, the Hubbard County Food Shelf has served 3,279 households.  “It’s a busy place,” said Egge.  The food shelf averages 20 families per day –sometimes as high as 53 families per day – and gives away 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of food every month.  An all-volunteer staff and director manage the food shelf. Approximately 100 volunteers serve in many capacities, such as operating the food shelf during its regular hours, picking up donations from local grocery stores, light computer data entry or unloading food deliveries from the North Country Food Bank.  Half to two-thirds of the food shelf’s funding is derived from personal and business donations.  The annual Chili Challenge, sponsored by the Park Rapids Enterprise, accounts for 15 percent of the food shelf’s income.  “That’s more than we get from state and federal grants combined,” Egge said. “So we rely on the community.”  Gardeners may bring their extra, fresh produce to the food shelf as well.  “We’re so thankful for it,” Egge said.

What can you do?  “I have a real hard time with hunger going on where I live,” said facilitator Gonsolus.  According to her research, 21.2 percent of children in Hubbard County are living in poverty, which is higher than the state average of 15.3 percent. These figures are from the 2014 Kids Count Minnesota, a national and state-by-state effort to track the status of children in the U.S.  “That’s 1,500 kids in Hubbard County. That’s a lot of kids,” Gonsolus said.  The county’s unemployment rate is also higher than the state average – 4.7 percent compared to 3.5 percent. That translates into 960 people, she noted.  Based on the 2014 Minnesota Report Card, 71 percent of Laporte families qualified for free/reduced lunches. Park Rapids, Menahga, Nevis, Menahga and Walker-Akeley-Hackensack schools all hovered around 50 percent. The state average is 38.3 percent.  

Other programs in the area for hungry families are the Nevis/Akeley Food Shelf, Ruby’s Pantry in Menahga and the Menahga Food Shelf.  Gonsolus urged audience members to keep the discussion going and support the efforts of local agencies.  “Be the person to counteract stereotypes,” added White. “It stops the discussion. We want to keep the discussion going.”

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