Making Ends Meet in Maple Grove

Nathan Grumdahl

It's Wednesday and the volunteers are scrambling in the back room, climbing over boxes and bags to reach cans of baked beans, Spaghettios, creamed corn, split-pea soup. At the moment the search is on for birthday cakes. A woman out front needs three of them.

Two silver-haired helpers peer into one of the freezers along the back wall, contemplating the selection (not the one that says "Happy New Year," they decide). They pull out two unadorned round cakes and a sheet cake decorated with frosted Teletubbies and take them to the counter, where a woman waits with her young daughter. When the little girl sees the colorful creatures, her pale face assumes an eager grin.

The CROSS food shelf in Maple Grove is a small, unobtrusive storefront that manages to stay surprisingly busy, especially considering its location in one of the Twin Cities' swankier suburbs--a prestige town showcased by half-million-dollar homes and fancy shopping districts. Coordinator Char Lake concedes that it's hard to believe that just down the road from such affluence, people are struggling to survive. "We have the whole range," Lake says. "People with the $1,600 mortgage to the trailer park."

And the need is only growing, even in places such as Maple Grove and Osseo, Rogers and points west. This time last year CROSS (Christians Reaching Out in Social Service) helped an average of 200 families each month; now it's more like 300. In January the food shelf distributed more than 1,800 pounds of food each day it was open.

Lake, a woman with a ready hug and an impressive ability to remember the names and situations of people who stop in, has lately witnessed a wide array of falling fortunes. Dejectedly, she notes that the very people who used to donate to the food shelf increasingly are coming in for help themselves. "We've seen a lot more white-collar workers," Lake observes. "It makes me really nervous. I just want to be able to keep up. You wonder what's going to happen if the economy keeps going down."

On Wednesdays the food shelf is open until 5:30 p.m., an hour and a half later than on Mondays and Fridays. Despite this afternoon's cold--it's the kind of frigid winter day when engines tend to whimper and give up--there is a steady flow of clients. They sign in, many on their monthly visit, and wait for the volunteers to pack up their orders. Then they rummage through the bread bins, or hunt through rubber tubs of children's clothes. Some simply stand off to the side, waiting a little uncomfortably for the food they need.

The contrasts in people coming through the front door is striking. There is the older Russian couple who moved here from Siberia to live with a daughter. The divorced truck driver who was laid off in November. And the 57-year-old woman whose husband lost his job last year because of debilitating arthritis. He had to wait for six months to find out if he'd be eligible for disability payments, and in the meantime the couple had to rely on the food shelf to survive.

There is the woman who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend. They both have jobs, but earning $10 an hour they simply can't make it without occasional help from CROSS. And then there is the woman who has cancer. Her husband lost his job as a computer engineer a year and a half ago, around Christmas. "We had almost nothing," she murmurs. "There are no jobs in the cities. One day you have it and the next it's all gone."

Jen is the woman who wanted the cakes, for her daughters, 6, 9, and 10, all of whom just had birthdays. She's 31, lives in low-income housing in Maple Grove, and has been coming to the food shelf for two and a half years.

"I get Social Security disability," she says, explaining that chronic migraines make it hard for her to hold a steady job. "We make it, month to month. If I couldn't come here, I don't know what I'd do. It's tight."

Around 6:00 p.m. Lake hugs the last of the day's clients goodbye. She relaxes a bit, relieved that her volunteers have managed to come through for so many people. Back in the storeroom, volunteers are still working hard, unpacking cans of cream soup to replenish the dwindling supply. The sound of the cans hitting the shelves is a rhythmic clicking, like a metronome, as constant as the need that will arrive again when the doors open Friday morning.

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