Battling hunger and homelessness in Douglas County
On Wednesday, March 8, representatives and volunteers from the Outreach Food Shelf and the West Central Communities Action Coalition met with three of the legislators from Douglas County.
ALEXANDRIA — Homelessness and hunger are two problems every community faces, and last week some Douglas County residents went to the State Capitol to discuss these issues with legislators.
On Wednesday, March 8, representatives and volunteers from the Outreach Food Shelf and the West Central Communities Action Coalition met with three of the legislators from Douglas County for Hunger Day on the Hill and Homeless Day on the Hill.
"They listened to us, and that's all we can ask," said the Rev. Tom Sinning, food shelf volunteer and West Central Communities Action board member.
"They took the time to at least sit with us," said Amber Holmstrom, family and community services housing coordinator. "We don't always get that opportunity."
"It was impactful to hear the stories of people, and it was impactful for me to understand there's 3,000 bills out there, and this is (the legislators') chance to see what a difference this is going to make in the lives of the people that voted for them," said Bernice Wimmer, executive director of the food shelf. "That's all we can do. The choice is theirs. Every little bit will help."
One food shelf volunteer spoke about when she needed help from the organization herself.
"I was very healthy, and had only half a sick day in 26 years of working for the company," she said. "I never got short-term disability because I thought I would never need it. So when I ended up needing spinal surgery, I ended up using all of my savings accounts, cashed in my savings bonds in order to pay for my insurance, my taxes and all my household bills.
"I found myself in dire need of food," she said.
At one point, she even had to dumpster dive to be able to feed her children.
She volunteers at the food shelf to be able to give back, she said.
"I see the needs of those in my community every time I volunteer," she said. "I see the needs of those in my community every time I volunteer. I see the struggle to keep the basic food staples on our shelves, and I'm very aware of the rising costs of food to replace food on our empty shelves."
There are three main pieces of legislation that could help combat hunger in Minnesota communities, Wimmer said. They are:
- HF 1554 — it would increase the Farm to Food Shelf biennial appropriation to $12.2 million, up by $4.4 million.
- HF 1981 — it provides $2.5 million in fiscal years 2024-2025 to meet ongoing demand for grants, and technical assistance and expand opportunities for revolving loans and other solutions to support new retailers.
- A proposal from Gov. Walz of investing $26.4 million in FY 2024-2025 and $23.6 million in FY 2026-2027 to ensure food security for Minnesotans in need across the state.
Wimmer also said $5 million was approved last week to be disbursed among the 400 food shelves in the state.
"Ironically, there were 5.5 million visits in the state of Minnesota (last year), so basically it's almost a dollar per visit that we would get," she said. "All of it will help keep food on our shelves, and keep us in business and helping."
Holmstrom said the Douglas County area has also seen an increase in homelessness and housing insecurity over the past year.
"We've started doing a lot of comparisons from our last grant term to this grant term, and some months we're seeing double the applications across our five counties," she said.
About 85% of those applications come from Douglas County, she said.
"We're not able to assist even half of them," Holmstrom said.
West Central has also seen an increase in prevention applications, Holmstrom said.
"We're getting people that can't afford their rent," she said. "We've seen rents hike up 30-40% over the past couple of years."
Hunger and homelessness are interrelated issues, Holmstrom said.
"Obviously, when it comes to homelessness, there's usually a food insecurity attached to that, as well," she said. "Now with the decrease in SNAP that's going to happen and the increase in food costs, and everything else along with it, people are going to … make some really ugly choices as to whether it's food to feed their children and their families, or their housing costs, or their vehicles."
Sinning said the reduction of SNAP benefits and the rising cost of food is the perfect storm.
"It's a double hit for people, because now the SNAP program goes back to what it was in 2019," he said. "In 2019, food was 20% cheaper. Now we're sitting here with more expensive food, and they're going to get that supplemental stuff knocked off."
Wimmer recommended that concerned citizens contact their legislative representatives to emphasize the issues and corresponding legislation.
The food shelf and West Central workers said they are glad both organizations exist in the community.
"It's really good to work with the nonprofits and have resources like West Central," Wimmer said.