Minnesota is on pace to hit a record this year for the number of residents relying on food shelves.

More Minnesotans than ever turned to food shelves for help during the COVID-19 pandemic, making 5.5 million visits in 2022 — the highest annual number of food shelf visits in history. That was up from 3.6 million visits in 2019.

The state is now on target to shatter that 2022 record, surpassing 7 million food shelf visits in 2023 and straining the resources of already overloaded nonprofits, according to new data from Hunger Solutions Minnesota.

"When people have to choose between budgeting for housing, transportation, utilities, medical bills and food, food is often where they sacrifice," said Cassie Kienbaum, director of food support programs at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. "But the need and our budgets are getting farther and farther apart."

Food shelves are getting some extra relief, state officials announced Monday, giving $5 million, the last of Minnesota's federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, to the state's seven food banks to buy extra food to distribute to food shelves.

"These funds are more important than ever before, especially in the face of sunsetting pandemic benefits and historic increases in food shelf usage," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. "Hunger exists all around us."

Minnesota boosted its funding to food programs this year, when the DFL-controlled Legislature approved free school breakfasts and lunches for all students — only the third state in the nation to do so.

The Legislature also earmarked an additional $3 million annually for Minnesota's nearly 400 food shelves over the next two years, nearly triple the previous biennium's funding. Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz signed off on $5 million in emergency aid for food shelves. The Legislature also approved $7 million in one-time funding to expand or renovate food shelves statewide.

And yet, food shelves are still struggling with rising demand and higher food costs amid declining donations.

In St. Paul, Neighborhood House is spending $7,000 more a month on food than two years ago. The influx of federally funded free food earlier in the pandemic has returned to 2019 levels, which means Neighborhood House must buy more food to meet the higher demand for food assistance, Kienbaum said.

"We find that, on a regular basis, we do not have enough food on our shelves to respond to the number of families who are seeking help," she said.

To stay financially afloat, Neighborhood House is scaling back the amount of food provided to families, she said. It's unclear how much food the nonprofit will get from the new $5 million in state aid, but Kienbaum said it will make a difference for the families they serve.

"Food banks and food shelves have told us their biggest need right now is more funding just to purchase the food, and that's exactly what this funding is going for," said Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.

Looking to mitigate poverty

While the state has low unemployment, experts say more Minnesotans are living paycheck to paycheck, stifled by rising rents, soaring food prices and stagnant wages.

COVID emergency relief, from federal stimulus checks to the expanded child tax credit, buoyed families' finances temporarily. Once that ended, however, lines began to form again at many food shelves.

In fact, federal aid that increased funding for food stamp recipients in the pandemic ended earlier this year. The next day, there was a line out Neighborhood House's doors, Kienbaum said.

"The economic recovery is uneven," said Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, the state's largest food bank. "That means more neighbors than ever before are facing food insecurity."

More Minnesotans struggling to make ends meet are also relying on food stamps. Last month, 443,000 Minnesotans received help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — 66,000 more than in August 2019.

At the start of the pandemic, agencies and organizations teamed up to address the sudden need for more food aid. But now, O'Toole said, that collaboration has ended even though demand hasn't ebbed.

"It's not sustainable," O'Toole said. "The status quo isn't working. We can't afford to be patient because the surge in need proves that we have to work differently."

During the great recession more than 10 years ago, the number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves doubled and didn't return to pre-recession levels. But Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group, thinks food shelf usage will flatten in 2024 in part because families will have access to free school meals.

"It's not just one thing," she said, referring to reducing hunger. "And I think inflation going down will make the biggest determinant."

Flanagan said that other state efforts — such as a new child tax credit and investments in child care and housing — will also help mitigate poverty.

"I don't believe Minnesotans will tolerate that as a new normal," Flanagan said. "I think that we will see some relief for folks as we move forward."