Minnesotans visited food shelves a record 3.4 million times in 2017, more often than even during the recession.

That's an 11 percent jump in adult usage in the past five years, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services analyzed by the nonprofit Hunger Solutions. Visits by seniors saw the steepest increases, jumping nearly 40 percent in that period.

Food shelf mangers couldn't point to one specific cause for the increased visits, but said the record-breaking year shows that many people have been left behind even as the economy grows.

"Minnesota's unemployment and poverty rates are among the lowest in the country and our per capita income and homeownership are among the highest. Yet thousands of Minnesota families are still struggling to put food on their tables," said Hunger Solutions Executive Director Colleen Moriarty. "I am surprised by it. I thought we would see a decrease."

She noted it's the seventh consecutive year with more than 3 million visits to Minnesota food shelves. Before the recession, in 2007, Minnesota recorded 1.97 million food shelf visits.

Those numbers climbed during the recession, and have continued to rise even as people have returned to work in the past decade.

Rising rents are straining family budgets, Moriarty said. The growing senior population and the struggle of working people to return to pre-recession wages could all contribute to higher demand, she said. Some people find themselves visiting the food shelf multiple times.

"It's everyday people who don't have enough resources," Moriarty said. "If you have one car repair or health emergency, that sets a family back. It takes a long time to recover from that."

The state contracts with Hunger Solutions to collect data from the 400 food shelves across Minnesota. They began tracking the visits in 2002.

Thomas Hansen, who is disabled and on Social Security, was surviving on one meal a day — ramen noodles and an egg. He started visiting the 360 Communities food shelf in Burnsville a year ago when his persistent hunger finally trumped his shame at needing help.

"It's nice to be able to eat more," Hansen said. "This was an opportunity to get healthy food in my diet that I never allowed myself before."

Hansen visited the food shelf Wednesday afternoon and picked up some bananas, yams and pomegranates — a newly discovered favorite. Hansen, who lives in Eagan, said many people are barely getting by, and when the rent, utilities and medical expenses are paid, there's nothing left to spend at the grocery store.

The food shelf has helped him stave off financial and health catastrophes. He said he feels better eating the fresh food and has lost some weight because he's less dependent on cheap, starchy calories.

"When you have such a limited income you are going to cheat yourself nutritionally," Hansen said.

The 360 Communities group, which oversees five food shelves in Dakota County, saw the number of yearly visits climb 12 percent to 44,600 last year. Spokesman Tony Compton said people have come to rely on the food shelf as part of their monthly budget.

"Food shelves help them to pay all their bills and eat," he said.

Paul Jacobson, basic needs associate director at nonprofit VEAP, said rising housing costs are stressing families on the margins. VEAP served 37,000 families last year from its Bloomington food shelf. That's remained constant the past few years, he said, when they had hoped to see it declining with the rising economy.

"We also have learned a lot more about housing issues. Folks are spending 60 to 80 percent or more of their income on housing," Jacobson said.

Greater Twin Cities United Way, the largest nongovernmental funder of food shelves and meal programs in the Twin Cities region, said food shelf clients report chronic unemployment and low wages as the primary reasons for increased visits.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804