Some St. Paul health clinics are providing more than doctor visits and flu shots this winter. They're also handing out potatoes, as well as apples, canned fruit and toilet paper.

Minnesota Community Care's clinics, which mostly support low-income people of color and immigrants, have launched new food pickups outside clinics to serve hundreds of families in need.

It's part of a broader shift to expand access to food closer to home and at familiar spots — from clinics and churches to libraries and city halls — during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened Minnesota's hunger crisis.

"They know our clinics … they feel comfortable, they feel safe and it's convenient for them," said Rubén Vázquez Ruiz, director of equity and inclusion at Minnesota Community Care. "This is actually a bigger need than we thought."

Last weekend, more than 300 families arrived at the clinic's drive-through food distribution, collecting boxes of food placed in vehicles' trunks to maintain COVID safety — no questions asked.

Some Minnesotans, especially immigrants without legal status, may be reluctant to turn to formal social services organizations. Getting food at a rec center, church or health clinic can be more anonymous.

"Some people have asked us: 'You're a clinic, why are you doing food drives?' " Vázquez said. "It's not just about them coming in to get a shot or see a doctor. They can also see us as a resource for other services."

While there are more than 300 food shelves statewide, many nonprofits are partnering in new ways with other organizations or places during the pandemic.

In Roseville, Every Meal, formerly the Sheridan Story, is distributing food at fire stations, rec centers and other community buildings. In north Minneapolis, NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center has long had a food shelf, which has seen a rise in visitors for its food boxes that include culturally specific foods.

At North Memorial Health Clinic, paramedics shop at North Market, a community grocery store on the North Side, and drop off the groceries at clients' homes as part of a wellness check. Starting last May, the paramedics helped 30 low-income clients with chronic health issues, many of them seniors. In February, that "Food as Medicine" program, funded with $67,000 from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, is shifting to bring low-income families with young children healthy foods and connect them to other resources.

New efforts helping Latinos

The pandemic has exacerbated the state's hunger crisis, with more Minnesotans visiting food shelves in 2020 than any year on record. Some food shelves report double or triple the number of visitors as pre-pandemic, many seeking help for the first time.

In 2020, Hunger Solutions' statewide Helpline (1-888-711-1151) responded to three times the number of households as in 2019, connecting residents to programs or food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

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.

Hunger relief programs expect the higher levels of need will continue through 2021 and possibly for years to come amid the economic fallout of the pandemic. During the Great Recession, the number of visitors to food shelves doubled and never bounced back to prerecession levels.

"People don't feel comfortable asking for food because it's a basic need," said Tony Sanneh, the retired Major League Soccer player who started and leads the Sanneh Foundation in St. Paul. "We think the pandemic allowed people to say it's OK to ask for help."

His youth development nonprofit known for its soccer camps has pivoted to focus on food, teaming up with organizations to help residents across the metro, especially low-income Latinos. Sanneh hired Latino outreach staff and partnered with schools that have mostly Latino students in Richfield, Burnsville, Chaska and Shakopee.

Long lines for food pickups

"Food insecurity is the No. 1 thing we're doing. We were just looking for areas where we knew there were high needs," he said, adding that Latino immigrants without legal status may be reluctant to seek help, wary of revealing information. Most also don't qualify for federal aid like stimulus checks.

"I don't think their voices were heard," Sanneh said.

In October, Sanneh joined with Esperanza, a Shakopee nonprofit, and Minnesota Community Care to begin the food distributions at two St. Paul clinics. Several other nonprofits are helping provide food, as well as El Burrito Mercado. The next food pickups are 2-4 p.m. Feb. 13 at La Clinica (153 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul) and 2-4 p.m. Feb. 27 at East Side Family Clinic (895 E. 7th Street, St. Paul). Vázquez said the clinics will continue food drives twice a month — as long as they can find enough food.

Last weekend, people in 20 cars lined up outside the clinic an hour before the distribution started, eager to receive a food box. By 4 p.m., volunteers had run out of food, turning away about a dozen cars.

"That just tells you where the needs are," said Mary Hernandez, Esperanza's community project coordinator. "It's skyrocketed."

How to get help

To find a food shelf or community food distribution, go to or call the Minnesota Food Helpline at 1-888-711-1151 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

• In St. Paul, Minnesota Community Care clinics will hold drive-through food pick-ups from 2-4 p.m. Feb. 13 at La Clinica, 153 Cesar Chavez Street, and 2-4 p.m. Feb. 27 at East Side Family Clinic, 895 East 7th Street.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141