A food shelf works only if hungry people can get to the food. And not everyone can.

Disability, age and lack of transportation are among the factors that can make brick-and-mortar food shelves inaccessible to those who need them. The problem is particularly severe among senior citizens and in Greater Minnesota, according to food shelf directors throughout the state.

“These are people who have worked hard all their lives, and now they’re trying to live on $586 a month,” said Michelle Miller, executive director of the Two Harbors Area Food Shelf.

Over the last five years, food shelf visits statewide are up by 6 percent. But visits by seniors are up 24 percent, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a public policy group that works on food-related issues. To broaden the reach of local food shelves, the state this year awarded $1 million in grants to 17 food shelves, with the money targeted to either creating or expanding mobile food shelf service. Another $1 million is set to be granted next year.

“Transportation in this state is a huge issue, particularly if you have limited mobility or you have a disability,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions. “And there is more need for seniors in every part of the state.”

In Mankato, the ECHO food shelf has seen a significant jump in recent years in the number of seniors using its service, said Marcia Olauson, the mobile food shelf coordinator. Even so, many hungry people were missing out.

“Many of our clients were not able to get to the food shelf, or they weren’t able to take home as much food as they were allowed, because they couldn’t carry it,” Olauson said.

ECHO already had started a mobile service several years ago, but its $24,000 grant allowed the group to buy more food this year for its mobile program, which is run by volunteers using their own vehicles. And seniors aren’t the only ones being served.

“I thought we would be dealing with little old ladies in a wheelchair,” Olauson said. “But it’s everything from a mother with two infants who has no mobility, to large families who are disabled and have no food, no car and are really desperate.”

Many mobile programs in rural Minnesota are run by volunteers using their own vehicles, as in Mankato, while in some larger towns and in the Twin Cities, grant money has been used to purchase a van or bus to serve as a sort of grocery store on wheels. Either way, the food is getting to more people who need it.

With the new round of grants, several areas of the state — including Owatonna, Chisholm and Perham — can expect to see new or expanded mobile food shelves in the coming year, said Pete Woitock, a mobile specialist at Hunger Solutions.

At Family Pathways, which operates food shelves serving six counties in central Minnesota, workers noticed a drop-off in senior visits during the winter months. One food shelf was literally across the street from a senior center, yet older people who used the food shelf in the warmer months weren’t coming.

“They worry about walking, slipping and falling,” said Kathy Wills, director of hunger relief services. “Just carrying the groceries can be a big deal.”

With its $50,000 grant, Family Pathways has been able to expand its mobile services with an emphasis on seniors. But there’s been an unexpected downside, Wills said. Because the mobile service is less visible than the brick-and-mortar locations, it doesn’t bring in the same level of donations as the traditional food shelves, she said.

As mobile food shelves become more common, perhaps that issue will be resolved. There seems to be no question that the service is proving its worth to the groups that use it.

“We will be back at the Legislature, seeking money to continue,” Moriarty said. “We’ve received broad bipartisan support and a lot of encouragement.”