Thousands of people strolled the Mall of America on Thursday morning, including some dressed up as turkeys or cans of soup, to help organizations that provide free food to Minnesotans in need.

Organizers and participants of Walk to End Hunger said it felt good to be back at the mall and enjoying live entertainment after two years of online events because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dressed as sushi roll, Caitlin Lietzau, 34, said the event sparked an important conversation with her children, Crosby, 10, and Layla, 7, about food insecurity with a Thanksgiving dinner only hours away.

"We want to teach our kids it's important to make sure that everyone has access to healthy food," Lietzau said as Crosby and Layla, dressed as a hot dog and an apple, danced to live music in the nearby rotunda. "Every dollar that we raise goes to help — not just the people in the organizations that we're supporting — but it goes to help kids in their schools have access to affordable food."

Walk to End Hunger, now in its 15th year, raised $175,000. Donations are accepted until Dec. 1 to meet the organization's goal of $200,000, said Rachel Holmes, associate director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota.

Money raised will support several groups that advocate for and feed Minnesotans in need: Hunger Solutions Minnesota, the Food Group, Second Harvest Heartland, Loaves and Fishes, Meals on Wheels, Neighbors Inc. and PRISM.

About 2,500 people participated in this year's walk, fewer than in 2019, according to Holmes.

"It's always hard to come back after a two-year break," Holmes said in an e-mail, noting she was pleased with the turnout. "The need is so great right now, so it's really nice to see all the support from the community."

As people lined up to take photos with Santa or for balloons shaped like animals and crowns, Michelle Ness said she heard important conversations taking place.

"It's an opportunity to talk to your family about hunger. A lot of times parents will ask, 'What can I do to help my kids understand about hunger?'" she said. "This creates a space to talk about hunger and the need and to make a donation and to be part of the change."

Ness, who is the executive director of PRISM in Golden Valley, said the organization's food shelf had 500 visits this week.

"We're seeing record high numbers and a lot of brand new people using the food shelf who never had before," she said. "Sometimes people think there's no poverty in the suburbs, but that's absolutely not true."

More Minnesotans visited food shelves in 2020 than in any year on record as the pandemic led to furloughs and layoffs. Food shelf visits dropped slightly in 2021 though the number remained higher than in 2019.

The number of food shelf visits this year is on pace to surpass 2020 and 2021, according to nonprofit leaders.

In addition to feeding more people, food shelves also are grappling with higher costs because of inflation and supply-chain issues.

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