Minnesota's hunger crisis is expected to worsen this summer and fall, as the number of residents in need of food help surges to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

The new projections released Wednesday by Second Harvest Heartland are the first to show the length of a growing need in the state driven by a deepening economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are going to see unprecedented need and really need unlike anything we've seen since the Great Depression," said Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest in Brooklyn Park, one of seven food banks that supply Minnesota food shelves. "We've been training all summer long for this steep climb."

The crisis has already strained Minnesota's 350 food shelves, with many seeing double or triple the normal levels of visitors since March, including an uptick in first-time users.

The new numbers from Second Harvest and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predict the need for food assistance will peak in September to 735,000 Minnesotans who are "food insecure," or don't have consistent access to enough food. That's 13% of the state's population and 130,000 more people than after the 2008 recession.

"We have a strong emergency food system in Minnesota," said Colleen Moriarty, who heads the statewide advocacy group Hunger Solutions. "I think, all working together, we can meet the challenge."

Minnesota's unemployment rate rose to 9.9% last month, the highest level ever recorded since the state began tracking it in the 1970s. But the $600 a week that unemployed workers are receiving from the federal CARES Act ends July 31, so food shelves are bracing for an uptick in requests.

The new data account for that loss of $600 in federal aid and assume unemployment will peak in Minnesota at 18% this summer, with the hunger crisis continuing until the end of 2021 and the increased need costing the emergency food network $21 million.

"People are seeing the reopening and presuming the crisis is ending," said David Fiocco of McKinsey, who is also on the board of Second Harvest. "The worst is still ahead of us."

So far, experts say public and private funding is keeping pace with rising costs. This summer, $11 million in extra federal aid is going to the state's food assistance programs while another $9 million in state aid already went to food shelves and food banks as part of a $330 million emergency package.

"Safe access to healthy food is important to all of us, but particularly in times of crisis," Jodi Harpstead, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said in a statement.

Second Harvest has raised more than $11 million to cover the $17.3 million it says it needs to meet a 70% increase in food from July to December. Hunger Solutions launched a relief fund that's raised $112,000 so far for food shelves, especially those in Minneapolis and St. Paul responding after grocery stores were destroyed in riots following George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Churches, schools and even restaurants, distilleries, art galleries and theaters have become emergency pop-up grocery stores.

"[The] community is very innovative and people want to feed their neighbors," said Sophia Lenarz-Coy, executive director of the Food Group, a New Hope-based food bank.

But even if unemployment decreases as businesses reopen, Lenarz-Coy says people are likely returning to low-paying jobs. She worries that Minnesota's hunger relief system — which expanded dramatically after the 2008 recession and hasn't contracted since then — still can't sustain the extra need long term on its own. Broader policy changes are needed, she said — from better paying jobs to state and federal assistance.

"We definitely have not seen the height of the influx," she said. "The rebuild will be slow and long."

Starting new efforts

Before COVID-19, 1 in 11 Minnesotans struggled to afford food. By August, it's expected to hit 1 in 8 residents. (To locate a food shelf or see if you qualify for food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, go to hungersolutions.org or call 1-888-711-1151.)

The new data, which Second Harvest Heartland will update quarterly, will help nonprofits prepare for the fall peak and press for funding from donors and the government, O'Toole said. In the pandemic, Second Harvest has expanded pop-up grocery stores and traveling farmers markets and started Minnesota Central Kitchen — a collaboration with restaurants and chefs across the metro to make meals for people in need.

"We are innovating every single minute," O'Toole said.

Rural needs

On Tuesday, hundreds of people showed up at an event center parking lot in Sleepy Eye, two hours southwest of the metro, lining up in cars to pick up three boxes of produce, meat and dairy products.

The hunger crisis isn't just an urban issue; in fact, two-thirds of Second Harvest's large distributions are outside the metro. Pat Pearson, the nonprofit's hunger programs manager, said food shelves in rural Minnesota are struggling with a drop in volunteers, especially retirees who are more vulnerable to complications of the coronavirus.

To assist with expenses such as more storage space, temporary staff and transportation, Second Harvest is giving about $500,000 in grants to food shelves and has waived its fees to deliver food since March. The nonprofit is also pushing out a marketing campaign to destigmatize using food shelves, especially since so many people are seeking help for the first time.

In Rochester, Virginia Merritt hears of residents watering down their milk or skipping meals to make ends meet.

"These are families who, before furloughs and layoffs, were making it," said Merritt, who leads Channel One Regional Food Bank, which distributes food to 55 food shelves and 125 meal programs in southeastern Minnesota. "They [now] find themselves in need."

The food bank has expanded its mobile pantries in rural areas, many of which don't have grocery stores nearby, and partnered with counties to have social workers deliver food to seniors in need.

"I think everywhere is hurting in different ways," she said of the rural-urban impact of hunger. "We're going to be in this new normal for a while."