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Tough choices for North Dakota hungry

FARGO -- When her husband was hurt in a firefighting accident in 2005, stay-at-home mom Kirsten Olson struggled to scrape by as she cared for her spouse and three children in their Washburn, N.D., home.

"There was no income, so it's like, what do you do?" she recalled. "Do you buy food for your family, or do you pay your bills?"

A study released Tuesday suggests a growing number of North Dakotans are being forced to make such difficult decisions.

The Great Plains Food Bank study found that an alarming percentage of those using food shelves in North Dakota have had to choose between buying food and paying for housing, utilities or medicine, and many have skipped or skimped on meals.

"I think the one thing that really stood out for us is how truly desperate the situation is for so many we serve," said Steve Sellent, program director of the Fargo-based food bank.

Food bank staff interviewed 327 random people seeking assistance at 30 food shelves and soup kitchens in North Dakota and Fargo-Moorhead, and also surveyed 182 agencies providing food assistance, from February through June 2009.

Among the findings:

• Nearly 40 percent said they had to choose between buying food and paying for utilities or heating fuel.

• More than one-third said they had to choose between food and paying their rent or mortgage.

• Thirty-one percent had to choose between food and medicine or medical care.

• Twenty-six percent had to choose between food and transportation.

Twenty-two percent of those using emergency food programs reported being recently unemployed, likely because the study took place when many layoffs were being announced, Sellent said.

The percentage of college-educated food shelf users was about the same as the percentage of users who didn't finish high school, showing "the changing face of hunger in our community and state," he said.

Eighteen percent of those with children reported that their kids had been forced to skip meals sometime during the past year.

The survey was part of a national study called "Hunger in America 2010," led by Feeding America, a nonprofit domestic hunger relief organization.

The national study found 37 million people, or one in eight Americans, received emergency food from food banks and the agencies they serve - a 46 percent increase over a similar study released in 2006.

Great Plains saw a 19 percent increase in food shelf business across North Dakota through the first 11 months of 2009, compared to a 5.6 percent increase in all of 2008, Sellent said.

"I think we really saw kind of the back end of the (economic) depression hit North Dakota a little bit harder last year," he said.

Sellent said the study results will be used to refine existing food programs and advocate for additional assistance. The food bank sought funding from the Legislature for the first time last year, receiving $350,000 that was used to help start seven programs to expand food assistance.

Olson, who now has four children ages 3 to 9, said the food aid helped her and her husband - now back at work full time - in their efforts to return to stable financial footing. She said she now understands the importance of donating to food shelves.

"There's people out there who are desperate, even here," she said.