Food shelves and meal programs across Minnesota fear a COVID-triggered hunger crisis will remain at record levels through 2021 — a "new normal" of need. But the state appears to have flattened the hunger curve, avoiding bleak forecasts from earlier this year.
New data show food shelves are on pace to end 2020 with a record 3.75 million visits — nearly 1.5 million more than in 2008 during the recession, according to Hunger Solutions, a statewide advocacy group. The number of visitors to food shelves during the Great Recession doubled and never bounced back to prerecession levels, so nonprofits now worry about sustaining the food needed for the higher demand far into 2021, even if the virus threat ends.
"There's no end to the need," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, adding that it took most families 21 months after the recession to get back on their feet after job losses. "The economic conditions of the pandemic are going to continue for a while."
This week's federal stimulus bill brokered by Congress includes a 15% increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, through June. For every meal the emergency food system provides, SNAP provides nine meals. At the state Legislature, Hunger Solutions and other organizations will propose expanding meals to all students at high-poverty schools, not just individual students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
"I personally would love to see us feeding every child breakfast when they walk in the door," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
But with a lot of competing budget priorities, she said she's not sure universal school lunches will make it this year.
This year, the state and federal government doled out $21 million to food shelves and hunger relief organizations in Minnesota, up from the usual $1.4 million a year, according to Hunger Solutions.
No worst-case scenario — yet
The hunger crisis, however, hasn't reached worst-case projections forecast this year.
In June, Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of the seven food banks in the state, and consulting firm McKinsey & Co., predicted that the amount of food needed by hunger relief programs would increase by 70% from March to December and the number of Minnesotans in need would surge to levels not seen since the Great Depression.
But new data this month show that the amount of food needed to meet the demand actually rose 30%, although food banks in other areas of the country did see a 70% rise, said David Fiocco of McKinsey, who is also on the board of Second Harvest. The projections were based on the state's unemployment rate ending 2020 at 10 to 20%, not the 4.4% it reached last month. Plus, federal and state assistance has exceeded initial expectations.
"The stimulus did make a difference," Fiocco said. Now the question, he added, is how to avoid "reaching a new normal" in need.
While there aren't as many Minnesotans unemployed as expected, many are underemployed. An estimated 550,000 to 650,000 Minnesotans are "food insecure" — without consistent access to enough food — which is 20 to 40% higher than pre-pandemic, Fiocco said.
"We are still in the hunger fight of our lives. We are still seeing unprecedented levels of food insecurity in our community," Second Harvest CEO Allison O'Toole said. "It's far too soon to celebrate a victory in COVID-era hunger."
Throughout the pandemic, hunger relief organizations have retooled — shifting from allowing residents to shop for groceries inside food shelves or dine en masse to instead distribute food pre-boxed or in to-go containers.
After George Floyd's death, the civil unrest that destroyed some grocery stores sent nonprofits scrambling to get food to residents. The dual crises spurred many community groups to band together for the first time to distribute food to neighborhoods in informal pop-ups. Sophia Lenarz-Coy, executive director of the Food Group in New Hope, said the pop-ups uncovered Minnesotans who may not feel comfortable seeking help from formal social service institutions.
This year, the Food Group has nearly doubled the amount of food it's distributed to about 150 organizations, 40 more than last year.
"For me, there are just still a lot of question marks about what this winter will look like," Lenarz-Coy said. "The peak need can lag a bit … It's simply not realistic for all of those food shelves to double again. There's not enough private philanthropy to fuel that long-term."
The Food Group also shifted focus this year to buy more local products such as walleye and wild rice, especially from farmers of color. The food bank is wrapping up 2020 with nearly four times as much food from Minnesota producers as in 2019.
"All of a sudden, 2020 … accelerated innovation in a really fast way for us," Lenarz-Coy said.
Second Harvest also led Minnesota Central Kitchen, putting more than 100 restaurant workers back to work preparing 1 million meals for people at schools, soup kitchens and homeless encampments.
"We're working together in ways we haven't before," O'Toole said.
O'Toole said the food shelves Second Harvest serves in Minnesota and Wisconsin have seen a 60% increase in new visitors. In Mankato, while the ECHO Food Shelf has actually seen a decline in the number of people seeking help, many more are first-time visitors, said manager Deisy De Leon Esqueda.
In Bemidji, the community food shelf has also seen a dip in the number of visitors, but that could be because the nonprofit lost 70% of its volunteers and cut a day the food shelf is open.
"Many more could use our services and should," said Executive Director Mary Mitchell, adding that she expects numbers to rise.
Loaves & Fishes, the Minneapolis-based free meal program, serves rural sites from Barnum to Backus and executive director Cathy Maes said the number of to-go meals is doubling or tripling at sites both outstate and in the metro. She added that nearly 300 cars showed up in Marshall for a Thanksgiving meal. The nonprofit is on pace to end the year dishing out 4 million meals, triple the number of 2019. But it's just the start, Maes said.
"We are at the base of a mountain," she said. "And now I think we are going to be climbing and serving more people."
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.
HOW TO GET HELP
• To find housing, mental health help and other human services information, call United Way's 2-1-1 line (available 24/7)
HOW TO HELP
• Donate to your local food shelf or food bank by finding one at hungersolutions.org.