The number of visitors to Minnesota food shelves edged closer to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, according to new statewide data. But as special COVID-19 federal aid wanes, food shelves are bracing for an uptick in visitors in 2022.

The state's 350 food shelves were on pace last fall to end the year with 3.7 million visits, but statewide data released this month by Hunger Solutions Minnesota show that food shelves recorded 3.6 million visits, down 5% from the record number in 2020. As COVID-19 first hit in 2020 and businesses were forced to lay off and furlough hundreds of employees, food shelves saw an unprecedented 3.8 million visits.

The new numbers show that 2021 food shelf visits were just 1% higher than in 2019. Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, said Minnesotans were bolstered last year by extra COVID-19 aid, such as the expanded child tax credit and extra food stamp payments through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But a recent survey of local food shelves reported that 70% are already seeing, or expecting to see, an increase in visits this year.

"We put all these stopgaps in place and they worked," Moriarty said. "We're already seeing that, as supports drop off ... we'll start to see those numbers climb further."

Data from food shelves offer just one indicator of the hunger crisis in the state, as the number of Minnesotans relying on food stamps continues to rise since before the pandemic. In 2020, the state averaged about 412,000 SNAP recipients a month. By 2021, counties reported a monthly average of more than 445,000 recipients — up more than 60,000 from 2019.

"No one kind of knows what's going to come next. People who are just making ends meet may come back," said Patrick Felker, food shelf manager at Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP) in Plymouth, which served 3,300 west metro families and seniors last year — down from 3,800 households in 2020.

The number of older adults in need of food assistance isn't subsiding. Adults 60 and older shopped food shelves in 2021 more than 500,000 times, about the same as in 2020.

Marie Donaldson, 68, of Wayzata, has depended on west metro food shelves the past three years to make ends meet. As a retiree living on a fixed income, she said she's grateful for the extra help, especially after draining part of her retirement savings to care for her ailing husband. If extra federal aid ends, she said she will have to bump up her trips to the food shelf.

"I never intended to be in this situation, of course — no one ever does," Donaldson said after stocking up on fresh produce and other groceries at IOCP's food shelf in Plymouth. "I don't know what I'd do without it."

In north Minneapolis, the number of adults 65 and older stopping by NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center's food shelf has doubled during the pandemic, representing about 10% of about 1,000 households who use the food shelf each month.

Stuart Iseminger, the food programs manager, said the number of residents visiting the food shelf began to recede in 2021 from the record crowds in 2020. But he said that starting last September, the number of visitors has jumped each month. He thinks that's directly related to the extra child tax credit ending in December and other relief expiring.

Iseminger and his colleagues are preparing for the numbers continuing to grow this year, on top of volunteer shortages that have hit nonprofits and supply-chain issues making it hard to find and buy meat, eggs and other goods.

"Every month, we've been serving more [people]," Iseminger said. "We need community support so we can support our neighbors."