Initiative aimed at ending hunger
WORTHINGTON -- The face of hunger is changing across Minnesota. No longer is it the jobless or the homeless who wonder where their next meal is coming from -- it's the single parent and the working poor who can't seem to scrape together enough money to eat.
"On average, low-income Minnesota families miss 10 evening meals each month," according to Second Harvest Heartland community programs advocate Diana Madsen of Heron Lake. Statewide, statistics show the hungry miss 125 million meals per year.
Second Harvest Heartland will begin an initiative in January to end hunger within the next three years through its Hunger-Free Minnesota campaign.
Madsen said the campaign will aim to fill the 125 million meal gap by increasing emergency food by 50 million pounds per year, increasing enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and decreasing the stigma associated with food assistance programs. In addition, work will begin to simplify the eligibility forms for the programs.
Work has already begun to establish local collaboratives and partnerships in each Minnesota county. In southwest Minnesota, groups have formed in Cottonwood, Jackson and Rock counties, and Madsen anticipates a meeting will be offered in Nobles County in October.
"We want to build local leadership from within, so decisions can be made by communities," Madsen said. "We want to try to get in touch with those leaders who really have a passion in helping end hunger."
Once the local collaboratives are established, Madsen said dialog will begin to look at long-term, sustainable solutions to fill in the missing meals gap in Minnesota.
"We've done a lot of research, we have data and now we've set a finish line," she said.
Nobles County, with a population of approximately 20,000, had more than 6,250 residents living in poverty -- at 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline -- according to 2007 statistics.
At 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, people are generally eligible for food assistance, said Madsen. At 185 percent, people begin to look at visiting a food shelf or finding other ways to make ends meet.
"Poverty is a pretty general term -- our focus is specifically on hunger," she said. "We're finding some pretty consistent trends in terms of the percentage of people needing meals."
Nobles County's missing meals gap is quite a bit lower than some counties in the region because of "pretty aggressive programs," according to Madsen, including two food shelves, a summer lunch program for children and a feeding ministry.
Still, there is an increased need across the board.
"The need for emergency assistance -- food shelves or soup kitchens -- has nearly doubled since 2005," Madsen said.
Statewide, 61 percent of the people served by emergency food assistance are women, and 40 percent must choose between paying for food or some other bill, such as utilities or transportation.
"Sometimes in our rural area, we're not as aware of the needs because we're a dispersed population," Madsen said. "People aren't asking for help like they do in other areas."
The effects of hunger on a population can be tremendous, said Madsen. Hungry children are more apt to have difficulty in school, which leads to poor test scores and issues with student achievement. There's also increased medical costs related to hunger.
"Poor health costs Minnesotans $925 million every year in direct medical expenses related to hunger," Madsen said. "People who are undernourished are more susceptible to chronic health conditions ... such as obesity (they choose cheaper, less healthy food options), that can lead to diabetes and heart conditions."
Statistics on hunger in Minnesota are organized by county and can be found on the website, www.missingmeals.org.
People interested in taking part in the community dialog about hunger should contact Madsen at (507) 298-0788 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.