During the pandemic, a food line stretched across the parking lot outside the Albert Lea YMCA, starting at 4 a.m. The mobile distribution site didn't open until 11 a.m.

But they had boxes with fresh food.

"They had eggs, lots of fruits and vegetables. They had milk," Rose Montanye said during a hunger listening session at an Edgewater Park pavilion in Albert Lea last month. "People were craving fresh foods."

Two years later, that craving hasn't gone away. But the USDA's farmers-to-families program that sourced that site in Freeborn County has faded. Moreover, pantries say donations — especially for perishable foods — are falling short in an inflation-jarred economy.

In response, some hunger relief advocates are eyeing a target on the horizon: the once-every-five-years farm bill.

"It was like a perfect storm. You had everyone coming to the table for awhile to help people get through the COVID era," said Allison O'Toole, chief executive officer for Second Harvest Heartland, which organized a series of farm bill listening sessions across the state this summer. "Right now, we're back in that storm."

The congressional farm bill includes 12 sections, covering crop insurance to conservation programs. But 76% of the 2018 farm bill's nearly $900 billion went to nutrition. And many hunger relief advocates — who argue the legislation is as much a food bill as a farm bill — are looking to meet the intense pressure felt across Minnesota's 370-plus food shelves.

Elizabeth Koehl, outreach director for Prairie Five Community Action Council, said the food pantries she oversees have been strained by demand this summer.

"[Food pantry visits in] Swift County has increased 60%. Canby has increased 130%. Big Stone, 130%. Chippewa, 106%," Koehl said, as of late July. "We've not been serving that many households for the last two years, and our food costs have dramatically increased."

At the state's largest food bank, an Amazon warehouse-style site at Second Harvest Heartland's headquarters in Brooklyn Park, mangoes, zucchini and cabbage arrive in boxes, which are stacked on pallets stored on risers. Second Harvest then distributes produce to regional and local pantries across Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin.

A year ago, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Second Harvest's operations, marveling at a site — one of just a half-dozen in the country operated by a food bank — that allows Second Harvest to repackage pallets of meat in a USDA-inspected clean room.

But the room has sat dormant because the meat donations just aren't arriving.

"We've hardly used it," O'Toole said. "Our donations are lagging so much."

With the expirations of extra unemployment insurance, the enhanced child tax credit and expanded SNAP eligibility, O'Toole described 2022 as the hungriest summer, she's seen in recent history. She and others are calling for more funding for a small, but vital funding line through USDA called The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP.

That stream buys up U.S.-grown food that ends up on the kitchen tables of low-income Americans — providing a customer for farmers and nutrition for those who need it.

"All federal commodities are down 50%," O'Toole said, describing the reduced flow of fresh food purchased and distributed by USDA. "That's huge. What we are trying to do is leverage the federal government's massive power to source food."

In Albert Lea, which sits just north of Iowa, the pandemic revealed an underlying hunger that preceded the virus.

"We are primarily a manufacturing town. We didn't have huge, massive layoffs," said Erin Haag, executive director of United Way of Freeborn County. "So it was a curious moment for those asking, 'Why are people standing in line at 4 a.m. for a food distribution that begins at 11 a.m.?'"

For the pandemic's first year, United Way handed food boxes through car windows under USDA's Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which was established by the first COVID relief bill that passed in March 2020. USDA eventually sent out more than 173 million food boxes across the country, but the program ended in May of 2021.

Since then, Freeborn County's United Way has had pop-up pantries, such as one in July at the local armory. Haag said they'd like to expand to a brick-and-mortar site, which could serve as a hub for local food shelves, such as in the neighboring town of Alden.

"A small food pantry, they sometimes struggle with getting fresh produce in because the bare minimum is like a pallet or a case. It's just too big for their little pantry," Haag said.

But with more federal funding, Haag could serve as a hub for satellite pantries. And that would mean fresh food. In 2021, for example, 15% of food assistance for Freeborn County came through TEFAP.

"I can order milk [with TEFAP], and I don't have to pay for the milk," Haag said. "I pay for the transportation and the shipping. That's it."

Without this help on the margins, Haag said the outcome is clear. "We don't have a pantry."

Nearly 10% of Freeborn County residents face food insecurity. Although the three food shelves serve roughly 550 people a month, many go hungry.

Montayne, who serves as a designated delivery person for those unable to pick up food, interfaces directly with these neighbors. She observed many Latino residents live in the southern half of town, far from fresh food.

"There're no grocery stores on that side of town," said Montayne. "We only have two: the Hy-Vee and on the east end it's Walmart."

Each store carries a Hispanic section, says Montayne, but her clients prefer the fresh foods they can cook, not just pour from a can or box. And for a moment, in the pandemic, they had help.

"The rice came in 10-pound bags, and it was a very good rice," Rose said. "They were just so happy."

It's a feeling of satisfaction, she said, that both relief workers and families are waiting to see again.