The continuing scourge of hunger in Minnesota
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
By Clarence Hightower
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Oct. 27, 2016) — This past September, Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties took part in an important joint venture with Kowalski’s Grand Avenue Market, Thrivent Financial, Finnegan’s Brewing Company, and local food shelf network The Food Group. This event featured the Finnegan’s “Reverse Food Truck,” which helped to secure critical food donations to support the Community Action Head Start Food Pantry during Kowalski’s grand re-opening.
The concept of the “Reverse Food Truck,” a partnership between Finnegan’s and Thrivent Financial is to collect nonperishable food items and other donations, which with the help of The Food Group, are distributed throughout the Twin Cities to those in need. It is an innovative model that as Finnegan’s and Thrivent Financial note highlights socially responsible businesses “joining forces to end hunger in Minnesota.”
Hunger, which remains one of the most serious issues in both America and the world, rose significantly in Minnesota during the Great Recession. The use of food shelves and the number of applicants for SNAP benefits skyrocketed in the late 2000s and into the current decade.
In 2014, researches from the University of Minnesota published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that revealed nearly 40 percent of Twin Cities households had experienced food insecurity during the previous year. A follow-up story by MinnPost noted that that figure “is almost four times higher than previously believed and more than two-and-a-half times the national average.”
Recent statistics suggest that Minnesota has recovered from the recession at a much faster rate than have most states. While this is indeed good news for many Minnesota families, the problem of hunger continues to persist in every corner of the state. According to Hunger Solutions Minnesota there were nearly 3.3 million visits to food shelves by Minnesota residents in 2015.
Although this is a slight decrease from the number of visits made in 2014, 2015 marks five straight years where there were more than 3 million visits to Minnesota food shelves. The Hunger Solutions report also notes that “At the same time food shelf visits rose, the state’s unemployment rate fell, suggesting that not everyone shares equally in Minnesota’s economic prosperity.”
Another recent study, this one from the Twin Cities-based Second Harvest Heartland, strikingly illustrates the severity of this issue as well. Citing a report from the University of Minnesota Food Industry Center, Second Harvest Heartland states that “the effect of hunger costs the state of Minnesota $1.6 billion per year.” Of the more than 500,000 Minnesota residents served annually by Second Harvest Heartland more than one-third are children.
Among the things particularly troubling from Second Harvest Heartland study are details about the difficult decisions families are forced to make when it comes to buying food. For example, when faced with the choice between purchasing food and paying for other vital household needs:
• 71 percent of hungry families in Minnesota chose to pay for utility costs
• 71 percent chose to pay for transportation and/or fuel costs
• 67 percent chose to pay for medical care and/or prescription costs
• 63 percent chose to pay for rent or other housing costs
What a shame. There is no good reason that anyone should have to make such a perilous decision. The study further reveals that 81 percent of families chose to purchase cheap and unhealthy foods while more than half had to turn to family or friends for help. More than 40 percent of families either sold or pawned belongings and one-third of all hungry families said they watered down meals to stretch their food supply further.
There are not many things in this world more frightening than not knowing where your next meal will come from. I am reminded of a 2014 story out of Chicago where in the face of a teacher’s strike, parents begged city officials to keep the schools open as it was the only way to ensure their children received a nutritious meal.
In spite of Minnesota’s general prosperity, hunger remains one of the biggest problems we face in our state. Organizations such as Hunger Solutions, Second Harvest Heartland, and The Food Group are helping to make a difference. And innovative and visionary partnerships, like the one between Finnegan’s and Thrivent Financial are critical in the fight against hunger. As former director of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, Jacques Diouf, once said, “Hunger is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of justice.”
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and 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.