By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
ST. PAUL, Minn. (March 17, 2016) — Earlier this month, Hunger Solutions Minnesota released its latest report detailing that collectively Minnesotans made nearly 3.3 million visits to food shelves in 2015. In fact, Hunger Solutions Minnesota notes that “Since the recession, reaching over 3 million food shelf visits in a year has become the new normal for the emergency food system. 2015 marks the fifth consecutive year with over 3 million visits.”
One of the more troubling aspects of this trend is that the high rate of food shelf use seems to contradict the steady increase in Minnesota’s overall economic prosperity since 2011. Economists have generally agreed that it was in 2011 that America began a modest recovery from the Great Recession. However in Minnesota, it seems that the economic recovery has been accelerated when compared to most other states.
Consider for example that in 2015, CNBC ranked Minnesota number one out of all 50 states for business based on a myriad of indicators such as cost of living, economic strength, workforce participation, and overall quality of life. Likewise, 24/7 Wall Street and Forbes magazine have respectively called Minnesota the second and fifth best state in which to live in 2015.
And finally, after finishing second in Politico’s 2014 ranking of America’s best state, Minnesota ascended to number one in 2015. Politico based their rankings on 14 specific criteria including per capita income, homeownership, unemployment, poverty, income inequality, percentage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) industry jobs, and several education and health-related measures.
As Minnesota continues to fare exceedingly well relative to all of these financial, educational, and wellness markers, one must ask why more and more Minnesotans seem to be going hungry? Over the last five years, the state’s unemployment rate has steadily dropped while more and more Minnesotans are visiting food shelves.
Who is it then that is being left behind in the midst of Minnesota’s economic boom? The Hunger Solutions Minnesota report notes that senior citizens represent “the fastest group of food shelf users.” From 2011 to 2015, the number of food shelf visits by Minnesota seniors has grown by nearly 24 percent or a total of 55,000 visits. During that same period, Minnesota adults between the ages of 18 and 64 have visited food shelves approximately 10 percent more often today than five years ago. The number of food shelf visits by children has remained relatively flat since 2011. However, children still account for approximately 37 percent of all food shelf visits in Minnesota, meaning that two of our most vulnerable populations (children and seniors) make up nearly half of all those in need of emergency food.
The number of Minnesotans in need of food support, also known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), has increased significantly in recent years as well. When the Federal food stamp program was reorganized as SNAP in 2009, there was a strategic push to provide services to eligible households who were currently not participating in the program.
For example in 2008, only 60 percent of Ramsey County residents eligible for SNAP received benefits. The SNAP outreach initiative made an impact and by 2013, more than 80 percent of eligible Ramsey County households were participating. That said, the number of eligible residents has increased by more than 26 percent during the previous five years and it is estimated that 20,000 SNAP eligible residents in Ramsey County are not receiving benefits.
In Washington County, only 37 percent of SNAP eligible households were participating in 2008. Although that figure has increased to more than 55 percent today, the number of Washington County residents eligible for food support has grown by nearly 40 percent. As such, there are nearly 10,000 people in Washington County who are eligible for, but not receiving food support.
Similar trends are consistent throughout the metro as well as numerous outstate counties in Minnesota. So in spite of Minnesota’s strong pecuniary standing, Hunger Solution’s report seems to suggest the state’s increasing hunger problem means “that not everyone shares equally in Minnesota’s economic prosperity.”
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.