Live United: Report to provide data on others needing food assistance

Published 8:45 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

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Live United by Erin Haag

Most of the time, I write my articles late at night, or early in the morning, when I’ve got the quiet solitude to think and put together the thoughts that I’ve had rattling around. Not today though. Today I’m writing this from the south shore of Lake Superior, while my family chats around me. The little ones are making s’mores and the young adults are playing games. My uncle is nodding off in his chair. Occasionally, a firework shoots across the sky, celebrating the holiday.

Erin Haag

Last weekend, my daughter played in a softball tournament. It was a beautiful day, showing us blue skies that we haven’t seen for a while. I stood on the opposite side, trying to catch pictures of the team batting. As I framed up the pictures, I noticed that the American Flag was waving across the dugout. Both days are considered classic American events. The glow stick jewelry, handmade matching T-shirts that say, “Red White & Blue Cousin Crew.” Cheering on the softball game, eating hotdogs and smells of sweat and sunscreen.

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Last week, I heard someone ask another person what they were doing for the holiday. The person shrugged and said, “Work. It’s just another day.” While I’m choosing to write this article on my holiday, it’s my choice — and I recognize how lucky I am to be able to make that choice. This past week, there were items in the pantry that we knew would be used to help celebrate at various family events this week. Watermelon or an ice cream treat. Because for many, a classic American summertime event isn’t possible because it costs money. Money for food, money for glow sticks, or treats like s’mores. Other times, the money might be there, but it’s not possible to take the job off, because you can’t afford to lose even one day.

United Ways are hyper-localized, focusing on their specific “territory.” Yet, we stay connected, and we look to develop projects that can benefit us across the state. 2-1-1 is a fantastic example of how being centralized can help us across the network, making our individual United Ways more impactful in our communities. One of those projects has been in the works for the past couple of years and is now coming to fruition. It’s called United for ALICE. United for ALICE requires every single United Way in the state of Minnesota to participate.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. We all know an ALICE. ALICE is our neighbor, our co-workers, our teachers, our child care providers, our nonprofit workers who are working, but struggling to make ends meet. Often ALICE are keeping our local communities running, giving back in numerous ways, too proud to ask for help for themselves because they think someone’s got it worse than them. They might be able to go to softball games or host the family for a cookout on the Fourth of July, but they’re making tough financial choices to do so. They’re doing OK, but not able to build their savings, not able to get ahead, and then when disaster strikes, they’re tumbling below the poverty line.

It’s a story we’ve been telling often in the past couple of years as we focused on food insecurity. If you haven’t been aware, we had the data, the numbers. The compelling story of 9.5% of persons living in Freeborn County as being food insecure, a number that came from data collected before the food prices increased. Now it’s time to widen the net and find out what other gaps are in our communities. At the heart, ALICE is a storytelling project, driven by data. It will do three major things: produce reports, lead a learning community and give a tangible call to action.

Today, many still struggle to define what the needs in our community are. There was never any question about people needing help with food, but until the co-design process, people didn’t really understand what was needed to improve the system. People didn’t realize that a good percentage of those needing food assistance don’t qualify for assistance. Today that number is 18% — 18% of food insecure households in Freeborn County don’t qualify for SNAP benefits. That’s the work that the United Way Welcome Pantry, the Salvation Army, Alden Food Pantry and Ecumenical Food Pantry is doing every day. We’re working to serve that 18%, as well as the other 82%. We’re standing in the gap.

ALICE is going to give us reports to help assess those other gaps. The report will be statewide, but it’ll drill down to the county level, and there will be ALICE in FOCUS reports, helping us understand the specific needs of specific populations, such as our veterans. These reports will help guide our work, and guide the work of others in the state, including our legislators. The first report will be coming out sometime in July, and the statewide public launch will be at the capital in September. We’ll be working to inform the community the results of the ALICE report — and what it means across the state and in Freeborn County. These results will then drive the work of United Way, ensuring that what we do at the local level is data-driven, creating meaningful change that helps our community thrive. Stay tuned for more information coming out over the next few months. As always, if you’d like to discuss things further, join the conversation or join our volunteer crew, we’re happy to have you. Give us a call at 507-373-8670.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.