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John Stennes / Forum News Service St. Joseph's Food Pantry Director JoAnn Brundin, left, and Maria LeBlanc, a case manager at St. Joseph's Social Care and Thrift Store in Grand Forks, stock the food pantry shelves Thursday.

Food stamp cuts worry pantries

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GRAND FORKS — A woman walked slowly through the food pantry at the St. Joseph’s Social Care and Thrift Store in Grand Forks on Thursday, examining each shelf as a volunteer advised how much of each she could choose.

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“I’m on food stamps but I don’t want to be,” she said later, growing emotional. Nerve damage in her leg has prevented her from holding a steady job the past three years, she said.

Starting today, it may get worse.

With nationwide cuts to food stamps going into effect, her family of three will receive $300 less per month from now on, she said.

That may mean she’ll be forced to turn to St. Joseph’s more often.

Pantry Director JoAnn Brundin said she has seen the need for food from the pantry grow by “leaps and bounds” in recent years. “It’s been a little bit tough trying to keep the shelves stocked.”

Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, received a temporary funding boost in 2009. That funding is what’s expiring today.

Nationwide, it’s expected to affect 47.6 million, or 15 percent of the population, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

In North Dakota, 57,000 residents, about 8 percent of the population, are on food stamps. In Minnesota, 556,000 residents, about 10 percent of the population, are on food stamps.

Growing need

The woman at St. Joseph’s is one of nearly 100 families in recent weeks who have visited the pantry.

She’s fallen into a vicious cycle because of her medical condition, and it’s been nearly impossible to get ahead, she said.

“I’m not a lazy person who doesn’t want to work,” she said. “I have worked my entire life, but I am 42 years old and have nothing.”

Like others at the pantry, the woman asked not to be identified. Pantry volunteers say they must protect client privacy because no one wants to be recognized in a small community for using the pantry.

More and more area residents are turning to St. Joseph’s, according to Brundin. As of the end of August, a total of 2,213 families were signed on as clients, an increase of 21 percent from the previous August. They received 267,000 pounds of food from the pantry.

“We’re concerned with trying to keep up with the demand,” she said. “If it continues to grow, we may have to cut back in the amount we give each family.”

Brundin attributes the growth to increased costs for basic needs; the cost of rent, gas and groceries have all gone up, she said.

Families can receive from 90 to 200 pounds of food per month from the pantry.

Community support has been “tremendous,” with area grocery stores, churches and businesses donating most of the food, Brundin said. However, the need has been so exceptional that she started a summer lunch program for youth last year, she said.

Uncertainty

Susie Novak, executive director of North Country Food Bank in Crookston, Minn., said the food pantries her group supplies have “maintained steady levels to increases” in the number of clients during the past year, but the amount of food the group distributed has gone up 7.25 percent overall.

North Country serves about 50 pantries in 21 counties in northwest and west-central Minnesota.

Although reduction to the food stamp program had been anticipated, Novak said she’s still uncertain what to expect.

The food pantry that North Country runs in Crookston serves about 350 to 375 families per month.

“We’re concerned, and we want to make sure we still have the ability to help people in need if they’re experiencing huge problems because of the decrease,” she said.

North Country continues to pursue more food donations and resources, as well as some fundraising, so “if there is a huge increase, we’re able to still meet that need,” she said.

It won’t be easy.

Food pantries are approaching their busiest time of the year.

“It’s hard to realize when you live paycheck to paycheck how you’re going to squeeze in some Christmas gifts or some extra food for Thanksgiving,” Brundin said.

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