The number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves has eased slightly this year after a dramatic increase in 2020 because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the need is rising again.
The state's 350 food shelves are on pace to end 2021 with 3.7 million visits, just below the record 3.8 million in 2020, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide hunger relief advocacy organization. And officials say they're seeing the number of people relying on food shelves edging up as other aid wanes.
"People in poverty take a longer time to bounce back," said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for children and family services at the state Department of Human Services. "We still are seeing a need for all of the different types of food supports, but maybe just not at that extreme heightened need that we saw in the early days and in the middle of the pandemic."
While Minnesota's unemployment rate is inching down to pre-pandemic levels and job vacancies have spiked, soaring rents and high inflation driving up the cost of everything from gasoline to groceries are crippling low-income residents who likely were financially strained before the pandemic.
Evictions also are nearing pre-pandemic levels, and as additional government aid for programs such as housing assistance shuts down next year, the number of residents in need of food assistance is expected to climb again in 2022.
"I think that, as all of these programs blink off ... you'll start to see the numbers increasing," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions.
In some places, it's already happening. Joyce Uptown Food Shelf in Minneapolis is extending its hours to accommodate a record number of people this year, up 40% from last year. In Brooklyn Center, the number of new participants is up 30% from 2020 at CEAP (Community Emergency Assistance Programs), which is fundraising to launch a new mobile food program.
And in Bloomington, cars start lining up a half-hour before the food shelf opens at Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP). While the number of food shelf visitors there has dipped below 2020's numbers, the nonprofit has doled out nearly double the amount of housing and utility assistance to people in need.
"My biggest concern is that people have this perception the economic crisis is over," said Joe McDonald, VEAP's CEO. "The people we traditionally serve who are living on fixed and low incomes are going to experience the economic impacts of this pandemic far longer than people in the middle income and high income ranges."
The number of Minnesotans relying on food stamps also has increased since 2020, when the state averaged about 412,000 recipients a month on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). So far in 2021, counties are reporting a monthly average of more than 449,000 recipients.
"The need is still there," Brown said. "People are certainly transitioning out of emergency situations where things were really dire ... into this uncertainty that we're living in."
Part of that increase in food stamps could be the result of the state's increased outreach and improved access, such as the addition of online grocery shopping options. People who qualify for aid also received more money when the food stamp program was expanded through January, Brown said, bringing the average monthly benefit to $175 per person, up from $157 in 2020.
The number of adults 65 and older visiting food shelves in 2021 is also up nearly 32% from 2019 and on track to match last year's record 515,187 visits, according to Hunger Solutions.
'Perfect storm' for rising need
Last month, 730 households stopped by the Joyce Uptown Food Shelf, up from 344 in October 2020. Appointments are booked ahead for two weeks.
"Poverty is a lagging indicator of crises like these," said Matthew Ayres, executive director of the Minneapolis food shelf. "As the economy recovers and our 401(k)s look great, people that are on the margins, people who have little money and little resources, still are going to be fighting this for a very long time."
During the Great Recession more than 10 years ago, the number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves doubled and never returned to the pre-recession level.
In Brooklyn Center, volunteers at CEAP scrambled this week to load carts full of rolls, salad and canned vegetables as a steady stream of cars pulled up to the curbside pickup. While visitor numbers this year so far have dropped, the food shelf in the past two months has seen a new surge — perhaps with people who lived paycheck-to-paycheck before the pandemic and were bolstered temporarily by federal stimulus checks in 2020, said Kalleah Kennedy, CEAP's director of advancement.
"I think a lot of people thought, 'It's over. We can live life again,' " she said. "Then the variant and supports going away created this perfect storm for ... increased need."
CEAP is trying to raise $50,000 this month to launch the new mobile food program in 2022. Kennedy said nonprofits propped up with extra grants and donations last year have seen this year's funding wane. Last year, special food programs, such as emergency food boxes and extra food distribution pop-ups, helped people from Rochester to Richfield, but many of those initiatives have ended.
Nonprofits are grappling not just with the increased cost to serve more people but higher food prices and supply chain issues. At Second Harvest Heartland, the state's largest food bank, food prices are up 5% over last year, and meat, fish and other staples are hard to find.
At Loaves and Fishes, a Twin Cities free meal program that's on track to dish out 4 million meals this year — triple the number in 2019 — they're looking for donations and volunteers.
"We sometimes have nights with no volunteers," said Cathy Maes, the program's executive director.
Metro Meals on Wheels received $3 million in federal aid in 2020, but that's gone now, and the more than $3 billion that Minnesota received in federal aid this year hasn't yet trickled down, said Executive Director Patrick Rowan.
"Money is hung up at the state, county and municipal level," Rowan said. "While they sit here and try to figure it out, nonprofits are suffering, individuals are suffering."
Extra donations in 2020 helped sustain Metro Meals on Wheels, which is serving nearly 100,000 meals a month, double the number before the pandemic. But the lack of funding means Rowan is bracing for the tough decision he may need to make Jan. 1 to reduce eligibility and start turning people away.
"I don't have any money left," he said. "We're not in the business of turning people away ... [but] we can't serve everybody in need without continued support."
Minnesotans in need of help applying for food stamps can contact the Food Helpline at 1-888-711-1151. To find a food shelf, go to hungersolutions.org.
Kelly Smith, 612-673-4141