The phone lines constantly ring at the ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka, as a growing number of Twin Cities residents seek help. But for ICA and other food shelves across Minnesota, the need is only expected to climb.
The state recorded a record number of food shelf visits last year, but nonprofits are bracing for even higher numbers as COVID-19 federal aid payments subside. This month, food shelves and churches from Two Harbors to Tracy are calling for extra help as they restock ahead of the anticipated spike in demand.
"We know the next wave is coming," said Dan Narr, ICA's executive director. "We're expecting it to be a cliff, basically."
The Twin Cities Salvation Army hopes to collect 2 million pounds of food this month to refill its nine food shelves. At Greater Twin Cities United Way, volunteers are packaging basmati rice, bamboo shoots and other cultural foods for its third annual "Flavors of Our Community" food drive.
And across the state, nearly 300 food shelves are fundraising and collecting food during Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches' (GMCC) Minnesota FoodShare campaign, held each March to combat the lull in generosity that typically follows the holidays.
"The need has just grown exponentially," said Megan Young-Black, GMCC operations director. "This is a time of year when donations slow down. This is just a way to inject some energy into those efforts again."
Food shelf leaders say the higher cost of living and the end of pandemic aid — from stimulus checks to eviction moratoriums — have forced more people to turn to food shelves.
More Minnesotans visited food shelves in 2022 than in any other year on record, tallying more than 5.5 million visits — nearly 2 million more visits than in 2021 or 2019, before the pandemic began. Nearly 60,000 more Minnesotans used food stamps in 2022 than in 2019, with about 438,000 state residents on average receiving food stamps each month.
This month, Minnesotans who receive food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are getting their last checks containing additional pandemic aid. The program is reverting back to standard amounts in April, and as a result food shelves anticipate a surge in the number of families in need.
At ICA in Minnetonka, the additional federal aid early in the pandemic likely lowered the number of people the food shelf served. With that special support gone and extra food stamp amounts expiring, Narr said they are preparing to serve more people — ranging from the single mother worried about being evicted to couples or seniors living paycheck to paycheck.
"We're seeing a lot of desperate stories and it breaks your heart," he said. "None of us really know what we're facing in the next few months."
Food shelves themselves are weathering increased food prices. ICA, which serves about 1,300 households a month, spent $30,000 more than planned in February due to higher costs and fewer food donations, which usually make up about a third of its supply.
St. Louis Park Emergency Program (STEP) is also grappling with declining donations and rising costs, hoping to drum up community support to ensure shelves don't go empty. That support is urgently needed, said Derek Burrows Reise, STEP's executive director.
"Food insecurity is everywhere," he said. "It's in every corner of the state."
In Minneapolis, the United Way is collecting 6,000 culturally-specific food packs for food shelves this month. The drive is expanding statewide to 14 United Way chapters, supplying food shelves in about 30 counties.
In St. Paul, the Salvation Army's Eastside Service Center food shelf serves about 150 families a week and is at capacity. But Capt. Scott Spicer said he won't turn anyone away. Many food shelf visitors are finding their incomes not keeping pace with food costs and rent, he said, while others might have been sidelined financially by unexpected medical or car repair bills.
"There are a lot of folks who were doing all right, but now maybe for the first time in their life they need help," Spicer said. "Financially, everybody is kind of on the edge."
Bountiful Basket Food Shelf in Chaska served nearly 500 households last month, double the number it helped in February 2022. Executive Director Patti Sinykin is doubling the number of volunteers and expanding to Cologne, Minn., to reach residents in the area. Without more food and fund donations, however, it's hard to stretch resources.
"I think the community understands the need," Sinykin said. She's grateful for donations during the holidays, she said, but "hunger exists every day. Think about the food shelves year-round."
How to help:
- Greater Twin Cities United Way: Assemble cultural food packs to feed about 48,000 Minnesotans. The food drive ends April 7. gtcuw.org
- Twin Cities Salvation Army: Drop off unexpired nonperishable food items at sites listed at 2MillionPounds.org by March 31 for the third annual food drive.
- Minnesota FoodShare March campaign: The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches' campaign, which started in 1982, helps nearly 300 food shelves statewide. Go to gmcc.org/march-campaign to donate to GMCC or donate directly to a food shelf listed online by April 9.