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Mila Koumpilova, Published November 28 2009

Food pantry breaks Thanksgiving record

The week of Thanksgiving is a traditionally hectic time at Fargo’s Emergency Food Pantry, when families pick up the makings of holiday meals.

But this year, the pantry is breaking records: By Thanksgiving eve, it was on track to give away 250 turkeys. On Tuesday alone, 100 families dropped by, an all-time high for the agency, which serves up to 50 families a day.

“I’ve been here nine years, and we’ve never reached anything remotely like that,” said coordinator Linda Clark.

But then again, the past year has been an extra busy time for emergency food assistance providers in the area, which has seen a marked increase in

demand and in first-time users of such services. Local agencies have had to solicit more donations and occasionally shift their approach to keep up with the rise in need.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2009 Household Food Insecurity report, some 49,000 people lack consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food in North Dakota, the state with the lowest rate of food insecurity in the nation. That number is about 547,000 in Minnesota.

In total, 49 million Americans are deemed food insecure in the report – an alarming 36 percent increase – including 17 million children.

“Overall, we’ve been somewhat insulated from the full brunt of the economic recession, but we haven’t been immune,” said Steve Sellent, program director of the Great Plains Food Bank.

The Food Bank has seen an almost 20 percent increase in demand this year over 2008. Its 235 partner agencies in North Dakota and Clay County have distributed 5 million pounds of food through October, up from 4.4 million pounds at this time last year.

By October, the Dorothy Day House food pantry in Moorhead, one of the partners, had given out as much food as it did for the entire 2008, said coordinator Emily Shannon.

“Since April we’re seeing record numbers,” she said.

Agencies have also seen a sharp increase in new people requesting help. Unemployment and underemployment are major factors driving the new traffic, officials say. Some new clients moved to the area in hopes of finding jobs that didn’t materialize.

People who have jobs but struggle to keep up with expenses make up the fastest growing group of emergency food assistance beneficiaries, Sellent said. About 40 percent of those relying on such assistance in the state are children; 10 percent are seniors.

Agencies say they’re meeting rising demand thanks to a brisker pace of donations. The student-led Fill the Dome food drive alone will help keep shelves stocked for months.

The Food Bank launched a retail store donation program, with weekly pickup of surplus groceries from Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target. That will bring in 750,000 extra pounds of food this year.

“This certainly has been a larger increase in demand than we anticipated, but we’re fortunate that our major donors have increased their contributions,” said Sellent.

This spring, the Dorothy Day pantry switched from pre-filling food baskets to letting clients pick up whatever they need. That’s helped keep up with demand. Still, pantry staff has to turn down requests for high-demand foods such as pasta, canned beans and cereal occasionally.

“It’s been really difficult to keep food on the shelves,” said Shannon.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529