Amid prosperity, hunger growing in Fargo-Moorhead
DILWORTH, Minn. — Ashlie Jackson has struggled to find work and feed her two young children.
The 27-year-old mother moved home with her mom in October and visited a local food pantry last week — a visit that put spaghetti on the table and her mind momentarily at ease.
“There have been more than a few times that I’ve had to go,” she said of the pantry, breaking into a wide smile after locking eyes with Malikai. “Right now, I will definitely use it. I need to.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
The region’s economic growth in the past several years has brought prosperity and accolades to the Fargo-Moorhead area. Incomes are up, unemployment is down and Fargo-Moorhead has transformed its economy into one of the top 10 fastest-growing metro areas in the nation since 2007.
And yet there are staggering signs of growing hunger in the area.
Visits to food shelves in Fargo-Moorhead have nearly doubled in just five years, from 58,000 individuals served in 2007 to almost 110,000 last year, according to the Great Plains Food Bank.
Though Cass and Clay counties’ population has grown by less than 10 percent in that time, food stamp enrollment in the two counties has nearly doubled.
Local experts and community leaders say that growth may not be a bad thing — the food bank and social services may simply be doing a better job of reaching the hungry.
But they also see the lines at food pantries as a reminder that all is not well for those who were already struggling, living on the margins.
The metro’s economy took off, but Ashlie and thousands like her were left behind.
After months of searching for work, Jackson just started a new job as a cook at a local Italian restaurant. Things are looking up.
“I’m at this point of my life where I have to start over,” she said, pausing to wipe away tears. “Starting over and not being able to supply your kids is difficult.”
‘I felt like I failed myself’
The workers and volunteers on the front lines of hunger in Fargo-Moorhead aren’t shocked to see the numbers. They see the people behind them every day.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are a large number of people that are barely making it, or that have to make difficult choices about where their next meal is coming from,” said Greg Diehl, administrator of the Fargo-Moorhead Emergency Food Pantry near downtown Fargo. “It’s very easy just to believe that doesn’t exist.”
The Emergency Food Pantry serves between 35 and 50 families a day, Monday through Friday, providing a grocery cart of several weeks’ worth of bread, meat, produce, grains and canned goods.
And the “emergency” in its name says it all. It’s meant to be a stopgap up to four times a year, Diehl said — not a continual source of food.
Diehl said almost every customer at the pantry has a unique story, but there are common reasons for a visit. There are people between work and those working two, even three, low-paying jobs. Spouses fleeing abuse. Single parents and families who choose to cut out grocery expenses because they can’t pay less of their rent or medical bills.
And what nearly every visitor has in common, Diehl said, is that they wish they didn’t need help feeding their families but are grateful it’s there.
“I haven’t really found anybody that wants to be taken care of,” he said.
That kind of quiet shame is common, managers of other food pantries say.
“Folks are definitely really timid about coming in and asking for food,” said Erin Prochnow, executive director of the YWCA Cass Clay, which runs a food pantry providing three to five days of food up to once a month. “Most of us want to be able to provide for ourselves. There’s a stigma that people aren’t working hard.”
That’s how Jackson felt — at least at first. She’s been to both the Emergency Food Pantry and the YWCA off and on in the past few years, she said.
“Before, I felt like I failed myself. It was like a sign of weakness if I couldn’t do it myself,” she said. “It took a while for me to realize that I need to be honest with myself: If I need help, I need help.”
Steve Sellent of the Great Plains Food Bank looks at the growing numbers and sees the bright side. We’re doing a better job of feeding hungry people, he thinks to himself.
But as program director for the food bank — which distributes millions of pounds of food to pantries across North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota — Sellent acknowledges the need is hidden but growing.
“We talk a lot about hunger and poverty being hidden in our community,” he said. “For too many people in our community, it’s a painful reality. It’s just not out there in front.”
He and others point to the influx of New Americans and other low-income workers in the metro as a possible cause. Diehl hears the stories about people moving to western North Dakota in search of an oilfield job, only to strike out and head east to Fargo-Moorhead. That’s probably a factor, too, he said.
As more food pantries have cropped up across the metro area, it’s become easier to get food for free and boosted food shelf service numbers every year since 2007.
Tai Clark, family services director for the Salvation Army in Fargo, said that may be part of the problem.
The Salvation Army shuttered its food pantry five years ago, in part because Clark said they felt the community’s need for food was being met. But the dozens of food pantries in the area don’t set geographical boundaries — a person can go to any of them, she said. Clark said she suspects the ease of getting food has artificially boosted numbers.
But it’s not just lines at food pantries that are growing. Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly called food stamps — almost doubled in Cass County between 2007 and 2012, according to data collected by the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments. In Clay County, it nearly tripled.
The number of public school students receiving free or reduced-price lunch — reserved for children from low-income families — at area public schools has also increased dramatically in the past several years. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Moorhead Public School District, where 41 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch last school year — up from 30 percent in 2007.
After years of double-digit increases in food pantry service year-over-year, Sellent said he is cautiously optimistic the growing need is slowing down. The growth in 2012 — up 9.6 percent from 2011 — was the smallest increase since 2007.
But food pantry managers like Diehl fear what local effects a looming cut to food stamps in Congress may have. Diehl and the Emergency Food Pantry are bracing for a 25 percent increase in visits.
In an odd way, Diehl said he would welcome the challenge.
“It’s an opportunity to step up and say, ‘These are our fellow community members,’” he said.
‘We understand what it’s like to be hungry’
Food pantry use at the Tri-City Haitian Ministry in north Fargo hasn’t just doubled.
“We have tripled,” said Paul Aladin, the church’s executive director who runs the food shelf.
The increasing demand forced Aladin to move his operation out of the building’s basement, which it shares with Golden Ridge Lutheran Church, and into a garage in the alley. Every Monday, 45 to 50 families line up to shop, grabbing canned goods and frozen chicken, beef and bacon from Aladin’s makeshift supermarket.
Aladin, a fast talker with a thick mustache and an even thicker accent, said it started as a weekly potluck about seven years ago. Eventually, he transformed it into a food pantry at the urging of parishioners.
“We sat down and said, ‘Well, there is a need,’ “ he said.
Mark and Hella Helfter, a retired couple who live down the street, first used the pantry about two years ago, after Hella’s bill from knee surgery squeezed their fixed income thinner than normal. Ever since, Mark Helfter said they’ve used it once or twice a month to supplement what food they could afford to buy. He grabs groceries for an elderly homebound neighbor, too.
“It sure helps out. If I didn’t have the opportunity, we’d have a slim living,” he said.
The church is nestled in a neighborhood with a concentration of New Americans. Not just Haitians like Aladin and his parish but immigrants from Sudan, Spain, Vietnam and more — plus lots of senior citizens, he said.
No coincidence, then, that it’s also one of the poorest areas in the metro area.
“If you’re never hungry, you will never understand it,” Aladin said. “We understand poverty. We understand what it’s like to be hungry, what it’s like to be nothing.”
Unlike many other food shelves, Aladin doesn’t put many restrictions on who can receive food from his pantry. He figures: If you came here, you need it.
Diehl said he knows some visitors to the Emergency Food Pantry — or any food shelf in the metro — may be abusing the system, taking free food that they may not need. And he knows that many of the people who take a cart may have put themselves in that situation through their own poor choices.
“That’s the frustrating thing. There is sometimes an attitude that if they made better choices, they wouldn’t find themselves in this situation,” Diehl said, his voice rising. “But they didn’t, and they are in these situations. So what are we going to do? Are we just going to let them starve?”