They arrived in cars and on bikes, streaming into a Richfield church lot to grab containers of beef macaroni hot dish.
Outside a St. Paul community center, motorists lined up for boxes of watermelon and other groceries.
In Duluth, a food shelf doled out milk and produce to 100 cars last week, more than any other time during the pandemic.
Five months into the pandemic, the hunger crisis in Minnesota is getting worse.
A growing number of Minnesotans have sought help after a $600 federal unemployment bonus ended in July. Food banks report a spike since the beginning of August. Funds from a $300 weekly boost just started going out but appear unlikely to slow demand for food aid.
“We are in the surge now,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, the state’s largest food bank.
Second Harvest predicts the crisis will peak this month to more than 735,000 Minnesotans who are “food insecure,” or don’t have consistent access to enough food. That’s 13% of the state’s population. It’s projecting a 70% increase in need for food from July to December.
“I think everyone is going to need to either give help or accept help,” O’Toole said. “It’s really going to take all of us to get through this.”
Applications for food stamps in Minnesota jumped 31% in the week after the $600 bonus ended for unemployed people. The number of calls to a statewide helpline run by Hunger Solutions more than doubled in two months.
Last month, more than 150 nonprofits wrote to Minnesota’s congressional delegation to urge them to take action, saying “failure to respond quickly and effectively will deepen racial inequity and result in a deeper and longer-lasting recession.”
In July, about 416,100 Minnesotans received food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a 12% increase from February. Nikki Farago, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Human Services, said her agency is expecting to see a continued need for months to come.
“If you lose your job, just because the pandemic ends, it doesn’t mean there’s a job available for you immediately,” she said. “There’s going to be some recovery time.”
Drop in volunteers, donors
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that it’s extending a school meal program for families to pick up food from any school, regardless of whether their child is enrolled there and even if they don’t qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Certain elements of the program were slated to end but will go through Dec. 31.
In Minnesota, the state is sending out $6 million to the seven food banks and $6 million to food shelves and to pay for increased transportation.
One provider that didn’t get those funds, the Sheridan Story in Roseville, said donations have waned since the crisis began this spring, even though its meal distribution volume quintupled. “The crisis isn’t over; it’s getting worse,” executive director Rob Williams said.
He’s trying to raise $1.8 million to pay for 100,000 meals a week for every student in 29 school districts through December. Otherwise, he will start cutting the number of meals by nearly half.
The nonprofit’s warehouse is so jammed with pallets of food that the Mall of America is storing 50 truckloads of food in vacant space once occupied by Bloomingdale’s.
The Sheridan Story also started a garden, harvesting more than 3,000 pounds of fresh produce. Local breweries, churches and even individuals are pitching in their own crops, too.
“People are desperate,” added Colleen Moriarty, who heads Hunger Solutions.
A boost for unemployed
Food stamps provide nine meals for every one meal that the emergency food network can provide, and with the loss of the $600 in unemployment assistance, more people may not realize they qualify for help, said Theresa McCormick, who oversees Second Harvest’s SNAP programs.
“Last week, we saw triple the number of completed applications compared to the same week in 2019, and many of the people that we were talking to were saying it was specifically because they lost that benefit,” she said.
More than 900,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment since the beginning of the pandemic. But today, around 350,000 are still collecting it.
The extra $600 each week from the federal government gave a huge boost to the state aid, which is around half a person’s weekly paycheck, and helped keep many Minnesotans stay above water financially.
“It’s hard to overstate just how much of a stimulus that $600 federal unemployment top-off was to our economy,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). “It put so many people in a position where they were making as much as if not slightly more than they made before the pandemic. So it has been a huge shift in the economic fortunes of people in our state.”
With Republicans and Democrats unable to agree on a new coronavirus relief package, President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month authorizing an extra $300 a week. DEED began sending out the payments over the weekend, but officials note that the funds will likely run out within weeks.
“Is $300 enough? I don’t think anybody thinks it’s enough,” Grove said. “But we’re thankful for it as one interim step.”
And it won’t reach everyone. Thousands of Minnesotans are ineligible for it because the program doesn’t extend the benefits to those who are receiving less than $100 a week in unemployment benefits. That’s the case for Joel Barron of White Bear Lake, who signed up for the state’s welfare program so she could feed her two children when the extra $600 ended. But without the additional $300, she’s wondering how she will pay the rent and her utility bills.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do at this point,” she said.
More first-time visitors
Nonprofits are trying to find new ways to help.
Second Harvest Heartland now distributes three times the amount of food a day, boosted the number of pop-up grocery distributions and unveiled last week a first-ever ad campaign aimed at eliminating the stigma of seeking food assistance. Up to 40% of visitors are getting food assistance for the first time.
In Little Falls, canceled fundraisers during the pandemic have led Marilyn Gulden to rely on grants for the Morrison County Food Shelf.
“It’s steadily increasing each day,” Gulden said of the number of visitors. “We’re anticipating a busy fall and winter.”
In International Falls, Ashley Hall is organizing an effort for the first time to drive across Koochiching County and deliver food directly to people in need. Normally, her nonprofit, the Falls Hunger Coalition, would stop distributing food in September, but she’s continuing it through the winter. Volunteers are scarce, though, she noted.
From St. Paul to St. Cloud, more new clients are arriving at NorthPoint Health and Wellness in Minneapolis for the food shelf and fresh food. Nearby, North Memorial Health Clinic and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota are testing a “food as medicine program” to provide food to low-income clients with chronic health issues, many of them seniors.
Since June, 30 patients have received groceries delivered by paramedics who also do a wellness check.
First-time visitors now make up about half of the people getting free meals from Loaves & Fishes. In nearly four decades, the Minneapolis nonprofit hit a new monthly record for meals in July.
“The numbers are pretty staggering,” executive director Cathy Maes said. “Hunger is silent and sometimes invisible in places like Lino Lakes and Minnetonka.”
John, an 82-year-old retired bus driver who didn’t want to give his last name, grabbed a dinner from Loaves & Fishes at a church in Richfield recently.
“I have to watch the budget real closely,” he said. “It keeps me from going under.”