Many residents at Bassett Creek Commons in Plymouth struggle to afford groceries and aren't able to drive to a food shelf. That's why they look forward to a food shelf that comes directly to their doors twice a month, dropping off free milk, eggs and fresh produce.

"It's very important. We're all poor," said Lois Lee, a 93-year-old former teacher who lives at the senior apartment building and volunteers to oversee the food shelf.

But the Minneapolis nonprofit that runs the mobile food shelf, East Side Neighborhood Services, says deliveries will be drastically scaled back next year if Hennepin County cuts a third of its funding.

Five nonprofits that provide food to low-income residents get $1.1 million a year from the county. But county leaders have proposed phasing out that funding, reducing aid by $282,000 in 2020 before it's fully eliminated in subsequent years.

"It's pretty outrageous," said Kristine Martin, president of East Side, which takes the food to 45 apartment buildings. "It's a pretty small amount for a large outcome."

The County Board will vote in December on its proposed $2.5 billion budget. It already approved a property tax levy increase of up to 4.75%, citing a need to fund child protection, personnel expenses and improvements to service centers. In recent years, the county has intensified child protection in light of child deaths and calls for reforms and also faces a growing demand for mental and chemical health services.

"It's painful for us to do reductions," said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy county administrator for the health and human services department. "I've got to make tough decisions."

She said she had to slash $39 million from her budget, trimming much of it by eliminating 170 full-time staff. Then she had to turn to "voluntary services" such as the food assistance contracts because the county can't cut funding mandates like child protection.

"Most counties do not invest in food shelves," she said. "We're unique in the fact we're even supporting" these nonprofits.

The nonprofits could rely more on volunteers or find efficiencies in other ways, she said, pointing to the rising interest in what's called food rescue, the distribution of leftover food from grocery stores, corporate cafeterias and other places to people in need.

"The question is: Is this a role government should play?" DeCubellis said.

In Minneapolis, Pillsbury United Communities' CEO Adair Mosley is trying to boost donations and trim expenses by growing more food for their program, which feeds 150 people five days a week. If that doesn't close the funding gap, he said he'll have to cut the number of days the meal program operates.

"Because of that [county cut], another vulnerable population suffers," he said.

At East Side Neighborhood Services, Martin is also trying to raise donations; for years, the nonprofit has gotten $511,000 a year from the county for its mobile food shelf.

"It's going to end up costing the county more in the long run," Martin said of increased medical costs for low-income seniors unable to access nutritious meals.

While the number of Minnesotans age 65 and older is increasing, funding for nonprofits that provide services for older adults has lagged behind and even decreased.

Nonprofits like East Side lost some funding from Greater Twin Cities United Way when it narrowed its grantmaking priorities. Some foundations are also shifting from funding basic needs to focus on issues such as climate change and workforce development, said Ekta Prakash of CAPI, which has received $33,000 a year from the county for more than a decade for its culturally specific food shelves for immigrants and refugees.

Food shelves are also seeing a growing need, with Minnesotans visiting a record 3.4 million times in 2018. A federal proposal to change who's eligible for food stamps could cause 35,500 Minnesotans to lose access to food assistance and rely more on food shelves.

"We are all serving more people than ever, so for Hennepin County to cut us is unconscionable," said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, a Minneapolis nonprofit that provides free meals to people at 17 Hennepin County churches and other public dining sites. "It's thousands of people who are going to go to school hungry, to work hungry. We've devastated by it."

After 20 years of county aid, the county dropped her funding by $20,000 this year, so she pared down her staffing. She's planning to close one or two of the meal sites in 2020 due to the proposed cut.

At the Food Group, formerly the Emergency Foodshelf Network, Sophia Lenarz-Coy is considering scaling back training, culturally specific foods or the number of food deliveries. The county is the largest single source of funding for the food bank, which distributes food to more than 100 food shelves and programs. The nonprofit got $265,000 a year from the county before a 30% cut this year.

"There isn't anyone to pick up the slack," she said. "The need is as high as it's ever been."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141