Editor's note: First of two articles focusing on hunger in Martin County.
FAIRMONT - "Food insecure" is how the U.S. government describes households that lack money and resources to adequately feed their families.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released this month on food security, 10 percent of people in Minnesota don't have access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle, better circumstances overall than the 15 percent of the U.S. population considered food insecure.
SLIM?PICKINGS?— Curt Moeckel, a volunteer and board member for Heaven’s Table Food Shelf in Fairmont, eyes shelves that are almost empty because of the demand for food in Martin County. Since Heaven’s Table opened in May, more than 15,000 pounds of food have been given away to feed the hungry.
About 4 percent of Minnesotan households have very low food security, which again is lower than the nation's 5.7 percent, or 6.8 million, who are eating less or going without meals.
Figures and anecdotes from this area show there are plenty of people right here in Martin County struggling with hunger, so many in fact that Fairmont food shelves are struggling to keep up with demand.
The Salvation Army's food shelf is open 1-3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and clients are allowed one visit per month, or preferably once every other month, according to the organization's social worker, Kathy Engman.
"The need has gone up so our supply dwindles quickly," said Engman, who has worked for the Salvation Army for 19 years.
Ten years ago, the food shelf served maybe 40 to 50 families per month. Now, it's serving anywhere from 100 to 120 families.
"It's gone up dramatically in the past five years," Engman said.
The same is true at the food shelf run by St. John Vianney Catholic Church parishioners.
"I started the Hope Shop in 2006 with three other ladies, and it's grown week by week," said organizer Marlys Steger.
Hope Shop, which also gives away clothing to families in need, is open to Martin County residents from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays in the basement of the Parish Center.
"We had a little boy one time who went up and grabbed a jelly jar. ... He asked his mom, 'Can I have it?' We said yes, and he just hung onto it for dear life," Steger said.
According to the USDA, nearly 9 million children in the United States were living in food-insecure households last year.
At Heaven's Table Food Shelf, a Fairmont organization still in its infancy, volunteers are anticipating the number of local people feeling the affects of hunger will only continue to increase.
"We're out of food and out of money," said Curt Moeckel, a Heaven's Table board member.
Coming into September, the shelves are almost empty, which volunteers take as a sign of how great the need for food assistance is in this area. As is typical for food shelves, the end of each month is the busiest at Heaven's Table, when its clients are often short on money and out of government-issued food stamps.
"We knew there was a need that wasn't being met," said board chairwoman Linda Meschke, but no one anticipated how great that need would be. "Last month, we spent $1,900 on food, plus donations. You can look in our food room, and it's pretty bare. It's not enough."
Since Heaven's Table opened May 15, volunteers have given away 15,091 pounds of food to 437 households in Martin County. On average, 174 households visit the food shelf each month.
The demand has surprised all the volunteers but not deterred them from their mission: "To serve the hungry in Martin County."
Data shows that's a daunting task. According to the 2008 Missing Meal Report, 19 percent of Martin County's population is missing meals simply because they do not have food.
"If we were to meet the need, it would take more than 3,000 pounds a month," Moeckel said.
First-time clients at the food shelf fill out a form that asks for information on their household size, income and the reason for their crisis, but they are not required to prove their need.
"If they come here, it's because they need food. We don't challenge that," Moeckel said. "We want to treat people with respect and dignity, and so if they say they need food, they need it."
On her first day volunteering, Dee Schuster quickly noticed a pattern in the reason people were visiting the food shelf: "No work, or not enough hours - that's a big one," she said.
Unexpected expenses are another common cause for crisis in households living paycheck to paycheck.
Heaven's Table partners with Second Harvest Heartland, the Upper Midwest's largest hunger relief organization. Second Harvest collects, stores and distributes millions of pounds of surplus food and grocery donations from manufacturers and producers across the country.
"We can purchase food from Second Harvest, and our money goes five times further than what it would at a grocery store," Meschke explained.
Clients at the food shelf are allowed to take home so many pounds per month, depending on their family's needs. Most start with a 15-pound "base box" of basic food supplies, such as noodles, soup and rice, plus any additional food their household qualifies for.
Heaven's Table will host an open house noon to 2 p.m. Sept. 22 to share with the community how the food shelf operates. Anyone attending is encouraged to bring two non-perishable food items or a monetary donation.
Located at 909 Winnebago Ave., the food shelf is open to clients 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 9-11 a.m. Saturdays. For more information, call (507) 238-5424 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to:
o Heaven's Table Food Shelf
1243 Lake Avenue
Fairmont, MN 56031
o Salvation Army, Fairmont
114 E. Blue Earth Ave.
Fairmont, MN 56031
o St. John Vianney Catholic Church
901 South Prairie
Fairmont, MN 56031