SHARE low-cost food program shutting downAfter 27 years of providing low-cost food to people in four states, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit SHARE is closing after its May deliveries.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
After 27 years of providing low-cost food to people in four states, the Milwaukee-based nonprofit SHARE is closing after its May deliveries.
Leaders of SHARE say a growing number of low-cost food sources have entered the niche it filled, cutting sharply into the demand for a program that served hundreds in the Northland. SHARE saw its number of clients decline as more retailers stepped into the gap that it had filled largely alone. From a peak of about 40,000 households a month, SHARE now serves about 6,000.
“That tells the story, doesn’t it?” said SHARE Executive Director Paulette Flynn.
“We were there before the big discount retailers,” she said. “We were in that gap for people who needed a way to save money on food. Then the market moved to fill that gap. I think it’s actually better in the long run if people can go to a regular store.”
With rising costs and a declining customer base, SHARE was finding it impossible to cover its overhead expenses, Flynn said, and decided to close while it still has enough cash reserves to cover its obligations.
“It’s a sad thing,” said Karen Arthur, a SHARE host site developer in Superior. “Obviously we are in a different economic climate, and there are more players in the food biz.”
SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange) offered savings of 30 to 50 percent on food by purchasing in bulk for thousands of customers who picked their orders up at more than 180 sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Illinois. Other than a handful of paid staff, SHARE is largely a volunteer effort.
“None of this would have happened without a network of volunteers,” Flynn said. “They are the face of SHARE in the community.”
When Arthur started as a SHARE volunteer in 2004, about 15 Northland households used the service. That grew to a peak of about 400 a month (more than 500 around holidays) in 2009. Now the main Superior pickup point and 11 satellite locations in Duluth, Northwestern Wisconsin and on the Iron Range serve about 274 households a month.
In addition to more competition, Flynn and Arthur said changing shopping habits hurt SHARE as well. SHARE required people to preorder and prepay for food that was available at a monthly pickup. That required more menu planning than many people want to do anymore.
SHARE has no income or place-of-residence restrictions on who can order food, though many of the members have low incomes.
Surveys of Northland residents using SHARE found that about a third of them budgeted a set amount of money for food, and their savings through SHARE helped them stretch their food dollars, Arthur said.
Another third “were not doing this because they needed to save the money, but because they wanted to save the money,” she said. Some of these people actually paid for food orders for needy people.
But a third used the money they saved “to pay the light bill. They were in the survival mode,” Arthur said.
Because there are now other low-cost food options available, “people are not going to starve because of this,” she said. “But we definitely provided a service to people. The people who were paying the light bill will be more challenged.”