Food shelves worried

FAIRMONT – Local food shelves have already seen a steady increase in demand, but if a federal Farm Bill that includes funding for food stamps and other nutrition programs is not passed by the end of the month, the demand could get much higher.

“At the federal level, all the nutritional programs and food stamps fall under the Farm Bill,” explained Linda Meschke, a board member for Heaven’s Table food shelf in Fairmont. “By Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, Congress needs a new budget to be passed for fiscal year 2014. The Farm Bill has not been passed, and possibly won’t be.”

The Senate and House have passed their own versions of the bill, with the House version excluding the nutritional programs.

“They will need to [meet in] conference [committee] for the nutritional pieces to come back in,” Meschke said. “But it doesn’t appear that they will work it out in time … They don’t move that fast.”

If there is no new Farm Bill by Oct. 1, Farm Bill provisions will revert back to those put in place in 1949.

“That is just bare bones legislation, and would really impact all these things we are accustomed to having in a Farm Bill, such as crop insurance. The dairy program would be hit really hard; we could see the prices for a gallon of milk skyrocket. We went through this same thing a year ago with the dairy program. But there would be no nutritional programs, no energy programs. It would impact the ag and nutritional programs greatly.”

Nutritional programs take up 60 percent of the Farm Bill, while 40 percent are more directly related to agriculture.

“Part of the thinking that went into the nutritional programs being covered by the Farm Bill was there were excess commodities, and they got rid of them by organizing the nutrition for schools and other institutions. They were getting those excess commodities to the needy.”

But if families who rely on federal assistance such as food stamps or the WIC program are cut off Oct. 1, it is likely many of will turn to food shelves to pick up the slack. But because demand for help and products from food shelves has been high, there is concern about whether food shelves can keep up with a spike in demand.

“The supplemental nutritional assistance program, SNAP, WIC, all of that is funded through the Farm Bill,” Meschke said. “If that ends, we will probably see a crisis.”

At Heaven’s Table in Fairmont, a steady gain of households receiving support has been seen since beginning operations in May 2012.

“At the start of 2013, we were seeing about 150 households a month,” Meschke said. “In spring, that jumped to about 175, and it jumped up again in the summer to 240. Part of that can be attributed to summer and children being home, and we could see a decrease in September’s numbers. But overall there has been a big increase in the number of families we’ve seen.”

Demand at Heaven’s Table may be up, but resources are down.

“We do order from Second Harvest, and we’ve had lots of people donating produce, so that has helped us supply food,” Meschke said. “But last year for the full year, we took in $35,000. This year so far we’ve only taken in $16,000. We still have a few months to go, and last year we didn’t have a [harsh] winter.”

Donations of fresh produce have helped Heaven’s Table get by with only partial orders of food from Second Harvest.

“People are willing to take the fresh produce; we see very little spoilage,” Meschke said. “If there’s something a little unusual, like eggplant, we provide recipes, and people are willing to try it.”

Since beginning operation in May 2012, there have only been two months when households using Heaven’s Table decreased.

“The economy is still down, and people can manage to get by for a while, but as it extends on they never get a chance to catch up,” and that becomes a burden,” Meschke said.

However, not all households counted in Heaven’s Table’s numbers are permanently on the roster.

“We have some that maybe come in only once or twice, and then they don’t need it anymore,” Meschke said. “That’s why we can’t just total the number of households because people go on and off. But the average we have is about 50 households a month each month that are new visits.”

There are regulations and requirements for those looking for assistance from Heaven’s Table, which goes by the federal poverty guidelines, but there are also some crisis options.

“We see people that are unemployed, or had medical expenses that leave little left over for anything else,” Meschke said. “Then we see people that are homeless and don’t have any resources.”

With fresh produce season ending and the looming potential end for federal food programs, local food shelves will see the strain.

“It will be tough to meet the demand,” Meschke said. “The people who are getting by with assistance now will probably be coming in … The demand is up and the ability to order due to funds is down. Fortunately, the business community has been supportive; some have sent us volunteers. It takes all of it to make the world go round.”

Heaven’s Table accepts donations of fresh produce, or canned and packaged foods an hour before the food shelf opens. Donations can be dropped off from 4-5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and from 8-9 a.m. Saturday.

For perishable donations, contact Heaven’s Table at (507) 238-5424 to make the proper arrangements.

Monetary donations can be sent to 1243 Lake Ave. in Fairmont.

Heaven’s Table food shelf is located at 909 Winnebago Ave. in Fairmont.