Nearly a half-million Minnesotans on food stamps will see a bump in their benefits starting in February as part of the $13 billion earmarked for food assistance in the latest federal COVID-19 relief package.

The $900 billion stimulus includes a 15% hike in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps — through June that state officials say won't take effect until next month.

Even so, Richard Lewis thinks food stamps are like chickens: Don't count them before they hatch.

"Every month, you sit and hold your breath and wonder if you're going to get it or not and what the amount is going to be," he said. The timing of the monthly deposits also can be "erratic," he said.

Lewis, a 74-year-old veteran who lives in a subsidized northeast Minneapolis apartment, has seen his monthly food stamp allocation plunge over the past three years from $120 to $15 without notice. But since October, he's been receiving around $180.

"It just took my breath away," he said. "I didn't want to end up spending any of it and having to pay them back because I've had that happen before. But they verified it."

Food banks and pantries stand to get $400 million in funding, a portion of which will go to Minnesota's 350 food shelves to help meet a pandemic-driven need that is surpassing the number of food shelf visits during the Great Recession.

Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group, recently estimated a record-high 3.75 million food shelf visits in 2020 — 1.5 million more than in 2008.

Minnesota has received $21 million in state and federal aid since COVID-19 hit last spring. In a typical year, that funding is generally less than $3 million, according to Tikki Brown, director of economic opportunity and nutrition assistance at the state Department of Human Services.

Previous state and federal COVID-19 relief funding helped give Lewis and thousands of others an increase in monthly food stamp benefits. It's also how nonprofits like Loaves and Fishes were able to purchase a new box truck to rescue food that would otherwise end up in a landfill, said executive director Cathy Maes.

Loaves and Fishes, the state's largest meal program, will close out 2020 having made 4.4 million meals compared with 1.3 million in 2019, she said.

"We thought this summer we were at a plateau. But November and December have seen big spikes in need and I don't anticipate that going away," Maes said. "I keep telling people that just because it's going to be 2021 doesn't mean things will be fine and good. For the folks who are really struggling, there's still more to come."

Increase to start in February

It's unclear how much of the stimulus package will go toward Minnesota's anti-hunger efforts, Brown said, but more than 430,000 Minnesotans on food stamps can expect the 15% increase.

There's one caveat, however: Increases won't appear on monthly benefits until February because January benefits had already been approved. Brown said the state is still working out some of the details, but the potential increase for a family of four could be $100, or $30 for an individual.

Emergency SNAP was made available in March, but only to people not receiving the maximum food stamp benefit, which is dependent on income and expenses. Brown said the emergency add-on is complicated and will be available only as long as Minnesota remains in a state of emergency.

Brown noted a sharp rise in the number of food stamp recipients. In October, the most recent data available, there was a 15% increase over last year. Throughout the pandemic, Brown said the state has supplied hungry families with 23 million pounds of food.

Right now she's projecting a huge gap in 2021, as she anticipates only 10 million pounds of food from relief coming in. That could drastically affect operations for both the state's largest food banks, like Second Harvest Heartland, and small community food shelves.

Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf in Oakdale served 21,000 people in November alone compared with 6,000 in November 2019.

"The need is something we never would have imagined," said executive director Jessica Francis. "It's heartbreaking to see people lined up through our driveway an hour before we open. Then I also see 25 volunteers march in and they're smiling and ready to go. It's really uplifting when you see that all come together."

Francis said her food shelf received a $151,000 relief grant this fall, which helped them purchase shipping containers to store food and hire temporary staffers. "We're just doing everything we can to keep up," she said.

Hunger Solutions executive director Colleen Moriarty said the incoming aid for food security is fantastic news and will quickly be put to use throughout Minnesota. She said that while increases to SNAP benefits are a huge help, it also eases some burden on food shelves and pantries pivoting to deliver food or switch to curbside pickup.

Grateful for the help

Lewis, however, remains wary of the increase, saying he'll believe it when he sees it. Still, he counts his blessings.

About 11 years ago after he lost his last construction job, he was homeless for a year and a half, living inside a piano box for two winters until he successfully applied for subsidized housing.

As a widower with no living relatives, he can get by on his monthly Social Security, food stamps and veterans' disability payments. Lewis got bronchopneumonia while in training for Vietnam that has plagued him ever since and puts him at high risk for the coronavirus. So he hides away in his small apartment and only checks the mail at 2 a.m. on Sundays when no one is around.

Lewis said a neighbor goes to the grocery store to pick up a few essentials for him: butter, a head of lettuce, tomatoes, a pack of Diet Coke. He'll sometimes splurge on a slab of salmon or steak that he can make last three days.

"One meal a day is plenty for me because I can only exercise in my apartment," he said with a laugh.

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751