Three weeks ago, Angel Swann was bustling around an art gallery turned pop-up food distribution site in the wake of George Floyd’s death. A line of those in need stretched into the parking lot, and she was prepared to keep the doors open into the fall.
Things are much quieter now at All My Relations gallery. While the backroom is still piled high with donations, items are given out just three days a week. That’s set to continue only through mid-July.
“We’re out of that initial crisis mode,” said Swann, the donation coordinator. “The need is still there, but we have to figure out our resources and our best role.”
Across south Minneapolis, similar calculations are being made by the many food distribution networks that popped up after grocery stores were looted and burned in the protests after Floyd’s death. Grassroots organizers who stepped up to fill the immediate need have now entered a period of transition.
As city officials and hunger relief organizations work to determine the extent of food insecurity in the Twin Cities, some of the dozens of pop-up food shelves have closed or partnered up so as not to duplicate services. Others have reduced hours and changed their distribution models to better accommodate crowds and follow social distancing guidelines.
Still, the on-the-ground energy is what will continue to drive much of the work, officials say.
Prioritizing community ideas while providing organizational support can be a “delicate balance,” said Tamara Downs Schwei, local food policy coordinator with a citywide effort called Homegrown Minneapolis. “The issue here is the scale, the depth and the breadth of the need,” she said. “We want to defer to the community without leaving people in crisis.”
“We have to let the community groups lead this effort,” said Sophia Lenarz-Coy, the executive director of the Food Group, a local nonprofit that supports area food shelves and offers a mobile food market, among other programs. “The last thing south Minneapolis needs is a bunch of hunger relief institutions coming in and designing what this needs to look like. We’re coming in when asked.”
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is still operating its food distribution site, which is now drawing upward of 2,000 people three days a week. The city brought in metal gates to help form lines that often begin at 9 a.m.
As the smoke cleared in the neighborhood around the church on E. 31st Street, it started collecting donations to serve an area that had become a food desert overnight. The first day brought a few hundred neighbors, and then that started to double nearly every day, said Ingrid Arneson Rasmussen, the church’s lead pastor. Serving thousands has required shifting away from a model that allowed families to pick out their own items. Now items are prepackaged and everyone gets the same bag.
The church has partnered with hunger relief organizations including Second Harvest Heartland, the Food Group and the Sheridan Story to source food and assist with ideas to best serve such a large number of people, many of whom are now coming from outside the immediate neighborhoods. A recent weekday brought dozens of families from across the metro area, including Angel Jonas, a 34-year-old who came from Coon Rapids.
“It’s a hard time for everyone, for the entire country,” Jonas said. “What I get here makes a huge difference.”
Retail stores in the neighborhood aren’t expected to open for at least a few months and even then, it will likely be much longer before a full range of grocery stores returns.
Holy Trinity will likely continue offering food and basic necessities with no questions asked until the neighborhood has another option, but its leadership is considering whether it could continue the work.
“Is this a call for our ministry in this moment or is this pointing us to a new direction of ministry to sustain over the long term?” Rasmussen said. “We feel that it’s too early to answer that question.”
Norma Parsons, 60, lives just a couple blocks from the church and has come frequently to get basic goods. Without a vehicle, she was used to walking to the local Cub or Aldi for her groceries, both of which have closed.
“This means so much to us, to this area,” she said, adding that she is worried about how sustainable it is to have thousands of people standing in line for goods multiple times a week.
Tensions in the crowds have dissipated with the new prepackaged model, but it’s been difficult to fully allay worries about scarcity, said Doug Mork, an associate pastor at Holy Trinity.
“We know there’s need stacked on need here,” he said.
Food shelves were already strapped by increased demands from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some shelves across the metro saw double or triple the need, with many first-time users.
“I’ve never seen need like this and I thought that was true before [the riots], when COVID hit,” Lenarz-Coy said.
Finding solutions has also been made more difficult by the loss of area grocery stores. Some food shelves relied on food rescue from the stores that are now shuttered. Despite the influx of donations from the community, finding sources of fresh produce and ways to keep those items properly stored has been challenging for existing and pop-up food distribution sites.
Many aid organizations had also limited the use of mobile food shelves so as not to draw crowds that would make social distancing difficult.
“We’ve been in high gear and we’re going to need to keep it up,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, which will continue to help with food distribution and emergency grocery pop-ups. “Hunger is getting in the way of our work to rebuild — it is complicating efforts to build stronger, more equitable community and effectively fight COVID-19.”
Simply reopening a grocery store won’t be enough to fix the many factors contributing to the growing food insecurity in Minneapolis, nonprofit leaders say. That wouldn’t address the many jobs or hours cut due to COVID or riot-related business closures, and it won’t help solve the challenges of getting groceries to seniors and high-risk populations who are still sheltering in place.
“This need didn’t start overnight and this response will have to be sustained,” said Lenarz-Coy of the Food Group. But, she added, there’s opportunity in crisis, particularly with the demonstrated wave of support, energy and input from the community.
“What we’ve seen for the past few weeks is this beautiful way that we know how to care for each other,” she said. “When it feels like the world is crumbling around us, there’s something really human in asking ‘Can I just feed you?’ ”