The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 23, 2013

United Way board takes exercise in hunger budget

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Chris Powers reaches into her cart of groceries and pulls out a jumbo pack of whole carrots.

She hands them to the Hy-Vee cashier and says, “I think we’re gonna put these back. If we have money left over, we might take them.”

She and her partners load the rest of their groceries up and watch as the total climbs — $33.71, $58.12, $98.94, $124.13.

“Uh-oh,” she says. “Take a few of those apples out.”

The clerk complies, removing two apples from cute little paper bag with the white handle. New total: $122.43.

“Take one more out.

New total: $120.78. Finally, Powers and the rest of her group can afford the groceries they have. And they did not get to throw back in that extra bag of carrots.

Powers doesn’t normally shop like this. Neither do the other members of her group: Barb Kaus of Carlson Craft, Blue Earth County Administrator Bob Meyer and Ridley CEO Steve Von Roekel. But today’s visit wasn’t about getting groceries. It was about understanding hunger.

The four are all members of the United Way’s board of directors. And while they were at Hy-Vee, other groups of United Way board members were at other grocery stores, including both Cub Food locations, the hilltop Hy-Vee and Walmart.

The idea was to give the board an idea of what many families go through every day in the Mankato area and throughout Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton has declared January SNAP Outreach Month. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and is designed to supplement a family’s efforts to have enough to eat.

As the United Way groups shopped, they were working on a scenario that, for many families, is very real: Brian Carlson and Jenny Carlson are married with two kids. Brian loses his job and, because of the state of the economy, is unable to find work with a comparable wage. After burning through their savings, the family is forced to seek help.

Given a fictional set of parameters to account for mortgage, utilities and other family expenses, the scenario left the family with $121 to feed a family of four for a week. And that’s where the groups began Tuesday.

They took a methodical approach. Meyer was assigned the task of keeping track of their running total on his smart phone. Von Roekel pushed the cart. And Kaus and Powers did most of the filling of the cart.

Kaus, who has shopped hundreds of times to feed three boys and a husband, said she’s never had to shop in a manner where every penny mattered. She said she learned something Tuesday.

“To be in their shoes, to feel what they feel ... It’s hard,” Kaus said.

Meyer said he does a lot of the shopping in his house. And while he doesn’t always do it with a calculator in his hand, he says he’s no stranger to pushing a cart through grocery store aisles.

Having to keep track of everything in the cart, he said, transforms the experience.

“It adds a certain level of stress to be limited by financial resources,” Meyer said.

He said going through this exercise gives them a good perspective on how people are struggling in these tough economic times. In his work with the county, he said he’s seen many cases where people come to the county for help. In most cases, he said, it’s not people who simply don’t want to work. It’s people down on their luck who need something to supplement their efforts to get by.

That’s what made Tuesday’s exercise so valuable. But Meyer said he’s not naive enough to think a trip through the grocery store can allow him to know how it feels to struggle.

“Not having to go home and cook all these meals,” he said, “that’s a perspective we’re not going to get.”

Powers has that perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that she was a struggling college student with a young son she needed to feed. So for her, every trip to the grocery store in those days meant pulling out a calculator and a bringing along a detailed list.

For Powers, Tuesday’s exercise was a reminder of how quickly a person’s situation can change, and of how little people actually know about hunger.

“I don’t think people in Mankato realize how many people are hungry in Mankato,” she said.