A growing number of Minnesotans — especially older adults — have been seeking help from food shelves.

Visits to the state's 350 food shelves in 2020 rose by nearly 7% over 2019, almost double the typical annual increase, according to final tallies by Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group.

Food shelves across the state were visited 3.8 million times in 2020 — more than any other year on record — amid the combined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Many food shelves, especially in the metro area, are serving a growing number of older adults. The number of adults age 65 and up who visited at food shelves last year rose by 30% — about 120,000 more such visits than in 2019.

"The food shelves just turned on a dime," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions. "We have a really strong emergency food system in this state. And it works. I don't see [the need] going down."

The state's food shelves saw demand spike in June and July after grocery stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul were destroyed or damaged in the rioting following the death of George Floyd, creating food deserts overnight in pockets of the cities. Communities rallied together, with spontaneous food drives popping up in neighborhood parks, breweries and theaters.

But the need hasn't flattened. About 7.6 million pounds of food was given out in July by the state's food shelves, and after a slight dip in September the total pounds of food distributed statewide rose in the fall and winter, with nearly 8 million pounds of food doled out in November.

Hunger Solutions' data, from 350 federally funded programs, doesn't include informal pop-up efforts by restaurants and communities to distribute food. So the actual tally is likely much higher.

Wary but grateful

The hike in visits by older adults at food shelves could be that seniors, who are generally more at risk for COVID-19 complications, were more apt to seek support once food shelves switched from in-person indoor shopping to drive-through lines, said Joe Walker, who oversees grants to food shelves and statistics at Hunger Solutions.

"Seniors are some of the most hesitant to want to visit food shelves," he added. "Finding them where they are and reaching them takes a real concentrated effort."

In Montevideo, Minn., Prairie Five Community Action reached out to older adults in five nearby counties when the pandemic hit. Some seniors initially were wary about accepting help, but proved to be grateful for the frozen meals and emergency food boxes.

In Bloomington, more than 100 cars a day filter through the drive-up food line at VEAP, the largest pantry in the metro area, which saw a 9% increase in customers 2020 and triple the number of people seeking out its home delivery food program. CEO Joe McDonald said generosity has kept pace so far, with donations pouring in and a record number of new volunteers stepping up to help.

In northeast Minneapolis, East Side Neighborhood Services started a home delivery program thanks to federal CARES funding, dropping off food at the homes of older adults or those with disabilities. The nonprofit has seen some in-person programs decline during COVID, but food deliveries to high-rise apartments have increased.

While dramatic long lines of cars snaked through massive parking lots at food banks in Texas, New Jersey and elsewhere in the United States during peak times, Minnesota's seven food banks haven't seen such long backups during the pandemic.

Walker said that's because the state's hunger relief system is well-organized and set up to respond to the crisis.

"It seems like we warded off a much worse situation," he said. "Minnesota has one of the best food shelf infrastructures in the country and one of the reasons we weren't seeing those long lines. … If you drive through a small town in Minnesota you'll see the post office, maybe the bar, maybe an antique shop and then you'll see the food shelf."

Dark year, bright spots

The data show a rural vs. metro divide, with some food shelves in greater Minnesota reporting a surprising decline in visitors in 2020.

For instance, Hennepin County food shelves saw a 17% rise in visits, while some rural counties reported decreases — such as Otter Tail County, with a 32% drop.

Moriarty said that doesn't necessarily mean poverty is declining outside the metro area; it could just be that rural residents have to travel farther to get help and may not seek it out. Extra unemployment aid and federal stimulus checks also could have helped buoy financially strained residents.

Nancy Schwartz, executive director of the food shelf in Ely, Minn., said residents in some rural counties may have sought help from other resources, such as churches or other informal food drives. But she said Ely's food shelf has seen a rise in the use of its once-a-month curbside pickup and home delivery, serving more than 400 Ely and Babbitt residents a month.

Schwartz said she was surprised to see the number of older adults, some of whom had been unaware they were eligible for aid. She said she's bracing for another busy year in 2021, with January visits up 13% from a year ago.

Food shelf visits are only one indicator of the financial fallout during the pandemic, with nonprofits also helping residents with rent and utility bills to avoid evictions or to apply for food stamps. In 2020, Minnesota averaged about 412,000 recipients a month on food stamps, up from 371,000 at the start of the year.

Now that vaccines are starting to cut into the spread of the virus, nonprofits are bracing for what may be the pandemic's long-term consequences. During the Great Recession of 2008-09, the number of visitors to food shelves doubled and never bounced back to prerecession levels.

The current crisis is sparking some bright spots, though: Nonprofits have teamed up, found new ways to operate and received bolstered aid from the state and federal governments, with $21 million going to Minnesota hunger relief organizations in 2020 — up from the usual $2.4 million a year.

"It was a really dark year but there were some positive outcomes," Walker said. "It's really been a sight to see everyone kicking it in high gear."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141