“Our clients represent the spectrum of society. It can be anyone’s neighbor who comes in needing help… it could be the senior on the corner who’s lived there for 40 or 50 years and is struggling to keep their home. There’s no one profile of someone who comes to our food shelf.” —Peg Keenan, ICA executive director
It turns out your neighbors might be struggling more than they let on. A recent study by the Brookings Institution ranked the Twin Cities metro one of the top 10 metropolitan areas in the nation in terms of the growth of suburban poverty. According to Brookings, the number of suburban poor in the Twin Cities more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, compared to a 47.7 percent increase of urban poor. While the percentage of people living in poverty is still three times higher in the city, the rate of change is alarming.
Gentrification and urban growth—plus jobs moving to the suburbs—have prompted families to move in search of reasonable housing. But even long-time suburbanites are finding themselves in a tight spot. In the Twin Cities, renters are spending half their income on housing, according to Census data, and homeowners are feeling the pinch, too. The recent housing crash hit suburbs the hardest, with many people struggling to stay in homes that were suddenly worth a lot less. They couldn’t keep up after jobs were eliminated or wages trimmed, causing more working-class families to need assistance. Add to that the fact that the suburbs have less public transit, and less support infrastructure and food resources, and it’s a small, ticking time bomb.
Thankfully, services in western suburbs are stepping up. Intercongregation Communities Association (ICA) Food Shelf in Minnetonka and ResourceWest (RW) in Hopkins have seen a sharp increase in families needing their services in recent years, and have bolstered their services in response. ICA measures use by “food services”—individual instances where someone seeks food aid. Executive director Peg Keenan says ICA provided 469 food services per month in 2008, and that number has increased to 1,131 per month in 2014.
Judy Elling, former executive director at ResourceWest, recalls the upswing in food traffic at RW during the recession. “We cut expenses where we could, increased our fundraising,” she says. “We increased the number of volunteers we utilized, added staff and reached out to the community.”
About 10,000 clients use ResourceWest services annually. According to a client poll, most have children, and while 53 percent are employed, 60 percent of clients spend more than half their income on housing. “They are one unexpected expense away from becoming homeless,” says Elling.
ResourceWest offers a “one-stop shop” at its location in Hopkins’ Wells Fargo building. RW shares office space with Hennepin County, and the two agencies often act as partners. At its Hopkins hub, the county offers child support collection, immunizations, nutrition services for moms and babies, and veteran and disability services. RW’s Project Starfish, a more long-term solution, has a licensed social worker who works with clients to stabilize their situation. “This may include finding affordable housing, developing stronger budgeting skills, enrolling in a job training program, having reliable transportation to get to and from school or a job, and finding ways to address related child care needs,” says Elling.
One ResourceWest client, Nicole, first came across the organization when she lost her job and home after the economy collapsed. A single mom with a second child on the way, she was at a low point in her life and thought resources were only available in the city. “When I spoke with the people at ResourceWest, I felt a sense of hope,” Nicole says. “They listened to my story, and I felt like I was talking to a neighbor who genuinely cared about me.”
She received coats for her kids, school supplies and assistance with her rent. A computer lab allowed her to look for a job.
With poverty less of a norm in the suburbs—around 8 percent, according to Brookings—and a wider economic spectrum within neighborhoods, there’s sometimes shame associated with accessing resources.
“Stigma comes into play,” says Elling. “When the housing crash happened and we saw so many layoffs occurring, people accessing our services who lived in moderate- to upper-income residential areas would be very careful not to be recognized. They didn’t want to access free and reduced lunch services [for their children at school] because they didn’t want their children singled out as different by their schoolmates. They didn’t want anyone to see them using an EBT card in the grocery store … they actually apologized to us for using the services.” One family who was living in a car in a Minnetonka park “refused to go to a shelter because they didn't want their children to be ostracized by their peers,” she says.
These types of social concerns are what have caused ICA to rethink the way they distribute food. A popular model around the country—where clients can choose food items based on diet and preference—is being piloted at ICA’s K-Tel Drive location. ICA volunteer Gretchen Peterson says it’s “more efficient and more dignified. People can pick the food they want and need, and they have more control over what they’re getting.” ICA has seen a 20 percent decrease in the amount of food taken, because families only take the essentials. And if their kids don’t eat peas, they can choose carrots instead.
As a shopping guide who walks with clients as they select food, Peterson often gets to hear their stories. “You really don’t know what someone’s story is or what challenges they’re facing. You can’t pass judgment until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
Says Keenan, “Our clients represent the spectrum of society. It can be anyone’s neighbor who comes in needing help… it could be the senior on the corner who’s lived there for 40 or 50 years and is struggling to keep their home. There’s no one profile of someone who comes to our food shelf.”
In addition to the traditional food shelf, ICA has developed a mobile food truck that delivers to seniors and disabled clients, and a food rescue program where ICA picks up produce, day-old bread and items at their peak that local grocery stores would normally throw out.
Organizations like RW and ICA affect more than just clients. Says ResourceWest volunteer Barb Westmoreland, “You tend to hang out with people who are a lot like you. Working at ResourceWest has helped me get to know families with different cultures, religions and economic situations. It’s broadened my perspective on what my community is.” She says it’s made her realize how many people are only one bad phone call away from poverty.
Westmoreland recalls one shift when a long-time volunteer came in, and it wasn’t until much later that she realized the woman wasn’t there to serve, but to shop the Holiday Toy Chest for her family. “The look on her face was one of embarrassment, like she felt that she should be volunteering but needed the help,” says Westmoreland. “I realize now that it could be me… it could be any of us.”
Want to help alleviate poverty right in your neighborhood? Here are a few easy ways you can help your neighbors in need:
Get your green thumb in action. Plant a portion of your garden for your local food shelf. ICA welcomes gifts of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Give. ResourceWest is always accepting non-food items like toiletries, winter clothing and diapers. Packaged grocery bags of food are available at local Cub stores, or you can pick up a few canned goods for the ICA Food Shelf next time you’re at the grocery. Cash gifts go even further because of matching gifts and corporate partnerships, and both organizations offer automatic monthly giving options.
Learn about the issues. ICA Food Shelf offers info sessions at 11 a.m. on the second Wednesday of each month, where you’ll get a tour of the facility and learn about volunteer opportunities. Whether you’re a people person or prefer to spend your time sorting canned goods, they’ll help you find a spot to volunteer.
Attend an event. Not sure you can commit to a regular volunteer shift? Sign up to pack backpacks for ResourceWest’s annual school supply drive, or check out the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser at Hopkins Center for the Arts. You purchase your favorite handmade bowl and enjoy a soup dinner while benefitting ICA and ResourceWest.