People are going hungry right here in Otter Tail County. The need is also becoming greater as our economy enters into a possible recession.
Even prior to the economic woes a lot of people are facing right now, choices are being made on whether to buy food or keep the lights turned on.
The statistics are stark from OTC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The numbers can vary by month, but typically the variance is small. Currently there are 2,170 cases, serving 4,147 individuals including 2,576 adults and caregivers who take care of 1,571 children. 10.8% of OTC children experience food insecurity, with a staggering overall figure of 7.5% of OTC population experiencing food insecurity currently.
Otter Tail County Human Services Director Deb Sjostrom said the county has a variety of different organizations that are looking on how to help more with food insecurity, especially with children.
“Simply put, food is a necessity – there are people, families and seniors struggling to make ends meet in our communities who are worried about being able to afford food, who have to choose between food and paying other living expenses or bills and wind up skipping meals. SNAP is a resource for those who are eligible to supplement their food budget to put food on their tables,” said Sjostrom.
According to the Department of Human Service: “SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, helps Minnesotans with low incomes get the food they need for nutritious and well-balanced meals. The program provides support to help stretch your household food budget. It is not intended to meet all of your household's food needs. It is a supplement.”
One of the organizations helping with food insecurity in the county is the Friends of Friends Fighting Hunger.
According to the organization, the team is in the middle of its fundraising campaign with proceeds raised being distributed to nine food shelves in OTC and the city of Wadena, as well as nine participating school districts for the Children’s Weekend Feeding Backpack program. The food shelves are critical in supporting individuals and families and the WFB program provides nourishment to approximately 450 children.
One of the original founders of FOFFH, Paula Dietz, said the group of neighbors was all living on Otter Tail Lake at the time.
“We started with just a small group of neighbors that were socializing and the topic came up of food shelves and food insecurity and we wondered what we could do that could be helpful to our local area. One of the fellows had an idea … if each of us were to ask ten friends to help participate or donate, then we would keep spreading and growing and that’s how we got our name is that a small group of friends decided to ask our friends to contribute to our cause,” said Dietz.
Dietz added, “We initially started having events that were dinners and dances and live and silent auctions. Then the pandemic came along so we had to do virtual events. This year we decided on a letter campaign fundraising awareness drive, which is too bad but, sometimes that kind of thing runs its course.”
Dietz mentions they have members now from Perham, Henning and Battle Lake. The organization partners with the United Way of Otter Tail and Wadena Counties.
“I think the need has increased, unfortunately. When we talk to the food shelf, we’re primarily a fundraising group, we have connections with the food shelves. We donate our money (that is raised) to the food shelves and to the weekend children’s feeding program. Most of them would say their use has gone up at the food shelves over the years as well as the backpack program. The number of students that are in need and are receiving services through that has just increased with every year,” said Dietz.
“We used to say in general, one in eight families that struggles with food insecurity in Minnesota. Now the number I’ve been hearing is actually one in six, which is very high, “ added Dietz.
Over the past 15 years FOFFH has funded $22,408 for mobile food drops, $559,491 for the WFB program in eight school districts and $427,826 for the nine food shelves in OTC and the Wadena food shelf.
Jason Bergstrand of PartnerSHIP 4 Health and one of the founders and coordinator of the Lake Region Takes Root Community Garden said one of the missions of the organization is to improve access to healthy foods.
“We donate 15,000 pounds of produce each year to various food shelves. It goes to Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids and Battle Lake food shelves, as well as the Salvation Army for their food program there. This is our tenth year,” said Bergstrand.
Bergstrand said they are very active in addressing food insecurity with several initiatives including recently helping the Richland/Wilkin County Emergency Food Pantry create a mobile food pantry that serves approximately 200 people a month in the Rothsay and Foxhome areas.
In addition, ParnterSHIP 4 Health is currently designing an orchard with the Pelican Rapids Food Shelf to improve food access. Janet Lindberg of the food shelf reports that they have seen a 78% increase in usage this past year.
Bergstrand said they are also currently writing a regional food systems plan that will include Becker, Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin Counties.
“We have a community survey that we will be releasing in the next couple of weeks so this may be good timing for your article. We will also host several community engagement events this spring. This past year, we assisted A Place to Belong in Fergus Falls with starting a healthy food rescue program,” emphasized Bergstrand.
Sjostrom pointed out that it is easy to apply for SNAP benefits.
“It’s an application process that only takes people about 20 minutes to complete. So it’s not a difficult process for folks,” said Sjostrom.
To apply for SNAP go to mnbenefits.mn.gov. For info or to help the work of the FOFFH organization go to uwotw.org/friends-friends-fighting-hunger