Minnesota charities and state officials are preparing to confront another public health threat stemming from the coronavirus: hunger.

As the pandemic continues to spread, fears are mounting that people in or near poverty will have difficulty getting food, particularly if schools close and more people take public health officials' advice and stay home. Already, many of Minnesota's 300 food shelves are bracing for a decline in donations and a shortage of volunteers, many of whom are retirees at high risk to the disease.

Across the state, nonprofits that serve poor communities face a logistical dilemma: How to deliver vital food supplies to families at a time when people are isolating themselves at home and being told to avoid crowds and public places.

In response, Second Harvest Heartland, the state's largest food bank, will begin a campaign this week to prepare and distribute 10,000 emergency food boxes for low-income people across the state, including many too frail or too sick to visit a food shelf. Each box will contain an eight-day supply of items, including fruit, pasta, rice, rolled oats and canned chicken. Other nonprofits are seeking to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus by delivering meals directly to people at home, and bundling deliveries to minimize visits.

"Hunger does not take a break at times like this," said Allison O'Toole, chief executive officer of Second Harvest Heartland, which last year delivered the equivalent of 97 million meals to food shelves and hunger-relief programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. "In fact, the need intensifies and compounds."

The urgent response is being accelerated by fears of an economic downturn and looming cuts to the social safety net. Even before the virus arrived on U.S. shores, social service agencies were preparing for a possible surge in need stemming from planned cuts to federal food stamps. A new Trump administration rule would tighten work requirements, making it more difficult for able-bodied adults without dependents to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. State officials estimated that 8,000 Minnesotans could lose their monthly food benefits under the change.

The food stamp cuts were set to take effect on April 1, but late Friday a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction suspending implementation of the rule change.

To address gaps in the social safety net, Gov. Tim Walz took the unusual step this week of proposing a temporary, state-funded assistance program, which would extend monthly food benefits for up to a year to able-bodied adults kicked off SNAP by the new federal rules. The proposed new program, essentially a state version of SNAP, would cost about $18.2 million through the next fiscal year. Approximately 400,000 low-income Minnesotans receive SNAP benefits each month.

"Our biggest concern right now is people going hungry," said Ekta Prakash, executive director of CAPI, a Brooklyn Center-based nonprofit that provides food, housing and social services for hundreds of mostly Asian-American families in the Twin Cities. "If people don't have food at home and are afraid to go anywhere, then how are they going to feed their children and other family members?"

A major challenge for nonprofits is how to maintain services at a time when demand for emergency food aid is increasing, and as public officials encourage people to limit their face-to-face interactions.

In the Twin Cities, the Meals on Wheels program is rolling out unprecedented changes to its expansive system serving 4,500 people a day. Early this month, the program evaluated its client database, and is shifting to weekly or biweekly meal deliveries for thousands of people who once received a meal each weekday. People will still get the same amount of food, officials at the nonprofit stressed, but the food will be bundled to limit visits. Volunteers are also being encouraged to avoid unnecessary contact with clients, by knocking on doors and leaving the food on people's doorsteps.

Patrick Rowan, executive director of Meals on Wheels in the Twin Cities, said the changes are designed to reduce the burden on volunteers amid an expected "rush in demand" as the outbreak spreads. He emphasized that people will still be receiving daily phone calls from Meals on Wheels volunteers on days when they don't receive a delivery. "For many of our clients, that volunteer may be the only person they see on a given day," he said. "We are not skipping out on that human contact."

Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves & Fishes in the Twin Cities, said she struggled last week over whether to continue serving hot meals on site, amid the flurry of new virus cases. All day Thursday, Maes said she was in "intense conversations" with the 33 churches and community centers that host the 3,500 daily meals provided by Loaves & Fishes. They ultimately resolved to continue its public dining service, though extra measures would be taken to sanitize the spaces and containers would be provided to allow people to take the meals off site.

"How bad would my heart feel if we stopped serving the people?" Maes said, her voice breaking with emotion. "We have to feed them, because people need nourishment to be stronger in case they get the virus."

Community food shelves are also taking new precautions to minimize social contact. At a food shelf in Columbia Heights run by the nonprofit Southern Anoka Community Assistance (SACA), people have for the past seven years been able to walk the aisles and pick out cereal, fresh vegetables, and personal hygiene products as if they were shopping in a small grocery. Starting this week, to prevent the spread of the virus, visitors will be encouraged to wait outside in their cars as volunteers bring them boxes of food. "This is an extreme situation, but we absolutely have to continue to be a lifeline," said Dave Rudolph, co-director of the SACA food shelf, which helped more than 40,000 people last year.

But as some nonprofits curtail personal interactions, public health experts have raised alarms about the growing risks of social isolation, particularly among the roughly 220,000 older Minnesotans living alone.

The rapid implementation of "social distancing" throughout society could exacerbate feelings of anxiety and loneliness, officials warn. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, has warned people to "avoid crowds" and "stay home as much as possible" to avoid being exposed to the virus. And this week, nursing homes and other senior living facilities across the nation began restricting visitors, even family members, unless the visit is essential. The measures are designed to prevent the type of nightmare outbreak that occurred at a nursing home near Seattle, where at least 18 patients have died and scores of workers have become sick.

The situation has grown so dire that even charities dedicated to alleviating social isolation are pulling back. This week, Little Brothers–Friends of the Elderly, a Minneapolis nonprofit, sent a message to its 250 to 300 volunteers, instructing them to cease face-to-face visits with its clients, and to rely solely on telephone calls and written communications until further notice. The directive marked a dramatic change for a nonprofit that has long made personal interaction central to its mission of combating loneliness.

"It's sadly ironic that an organization whose sole purpose is to engage people socially is having to ask people not to engage people socially," said James Falvey, executive director of Little Brothers–Friends of the Elderly. "But it's the absolute right thing to do from a health perspective."

So far, local food banks and hunger relief organizations in the Twin Cities said they have not seen a significant decline in volunteer activity, but they are bracing for the possibility that many will get sick or choose to stay home as a precaution.
For the past 28 years, Vicki Parchman, 62, has been the volunteer coordinator of a community meal at the Calvary Church in south Minneapolis. Each Sunday afternoon, Parchman and about a dozen volunteers serve a hot meal to 80 to 100 people who are struggling with hunger and homelessness. This week, for the first time in her memory, Parchman is nervous about whether she will have enough volunteers. Many of the church's volunteers, she said, are retired seniors like her with underlying health problems; a few have expressed fears of exposure.

"Volunteers are like the invisible veins of the community. They keep the hungry fed and the most vulnerable among us alive," Parchman said. "Unfortunately, people don't notice them until they're gone."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres