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Food shelf helps more in '09

Friends in Need Food Shelf director Michelle Rageth said last week she expects the St. Paul Park food bank to serve more than 19,000 people and give out nearly 1 million pounds of food in 2009, dramatic increases over a year ago that is in line with a recent statewide study.

The economic recession, high food costs and a rising unemployment rate are factors contributing to an unprecedented jump in the number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves during the first quarter of 2009, according to a report released by Hunger Solutions Minnesota last week.

More than 614,000 Minnesotans called on food shelves to put meals on the table during the first quarter of the year, a 28 percent spike.

During the first six months of 2009, 9,554 south Washington County residents visited the Friends in Need Food Shelf on Third Street in St. Paul Park. And, Rageth said, signs are the increasing number of new local families needing assistance isn't about to slow.

What's the main culprit, locally?

"Job loss," Rageth said. "All the time. We've got people that worked for major companies for many years and are now doing minimum wage jobs."

Rageth said many of the new families she used to see used to be contributors to Friends in Need, donating cash or food to help the less fortunate. Now that their fortune -- and that of many during the nation's deepest recession since the Great Depression -- has dried up they've come back for help, she said.

But just how many have come for help is staggering -- the 19,000 Rageth expects to see is up from 16,600 in 2008 and 13,000 in 2007. In 2006, Friends in Need assisted 11,000 individuals.

The number of child visits to Friends in Need has also leapt; Rageth said the food shelf is on pace to help feed 1,000 more children than it did a year ago.

That figure is also in line with statewide findings, according to the recent report. Jill Hiebert of Hunger Solutions Minnesota said summer typically sees the highest volume of children visiting food shelves with parents because of the lack of school-provided meals.

Hiebert said even when the economy begins to recover, many who use food shelves won't see their situation improve immediately.

Because of that, she said, "we don't see (the increased demand) slowing or plateauing."

Rageth said the food shelf, though, hasn't had trouble keeping pace yet. The large size of the building helps Friends in Need store more food -- and give out more, too -- and its rent-free tenancy provided by the neighboring Marathon Petroleum Co. helps the operation purchase more food from hunger relief organization Second Harvest Heartland.

Also crucial, she said, is the community's support -- help Rageth hopes continues.

"Because the community is generous it allows us to give out more food," she said. "We're doing OK right now (but) we need the continued support."