A normally bustling warehouse in Roseville now sits half-empty most days.
A surge in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota amid the fast-spreading omicron variant is deterring volunteers who would normally fill shifts putting together bags of canned fruit, rice, crackers and other items to give to children at 550 schools, libraries and community sites.
Half the volunteer shifts at the nonprofit, Every Meal, are open this month and into February, forcing the organization last week to scale back the amount of food it distributed for the first time. It comes as some schools are reverting to virtual learning because of COVID, leaving some kids without easy access to free food.
"It was disappointing obviously," said Rob Williams, president of Every Meal, formerly the Sheridan Story. "We're kind of the safety net role for supporting kids."
At the start of every year, many nonprofits see a dip in volunteering after people rush to give back before the holidays. But this year — just like last year — that annual problem is exacerbated by concerns about coronavirus cases.
The normal lull in volunteering in January isn't lifting at Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of seven food banks in Minnesota, which has seen an uptick in cancellations of volunteers lately and has many empty shifts into February. Corporate and faith groups aren't returning due to omicron concerns, said Julie Greene, who oversees volunteer services. Instead of having volunteers package potatoes or other items, the Brooklyn Park-based organization is boosting the amount of pre-packaged food it purchases, which raises costs.
In St. Paul, the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center relied on 100 volunteers a month pre-pandemic, but that's dropped to 25 to 50 volunteers during the pandemic. Now, the nonprofit gets about 10 regular helpers.
"It is a record low in volunteerism," said Jonathan Palmer, executive director at Hallie Q. Brown, where he and his 22 employees are all pitching in to run the drive-through food distribution. "The need is too great to be able to cut back. We pull together and pitch in. It means some extra work for us."
Nearby, Keystone Community Services is considering closing one of its two food shelves altogether due to a 30% drop in volunteers on top of a sudden shortage of staff; five employees are out of work this week due to breakthrough COVID cases or waiting for COVID test results.
"It is always our last straw for us. We do everything we can," CEO Mary McKeown said of closing one of the food shelves. "We're all tired of pivoting and changing and triaging."
Tracy Nielsen, who heads St. Paul-based HandsOn Twin Cities, which connects volunteers to organizations, said many local nonprofits are relying on a small core group of volunteers throughout the pandemic who are now increasingly fatigued. Organizations saw skyrocketing interest in volunteering when the pandemic first hit and then another influx of generosity after George Floyd's murder led to unrest. But now, it's hard for organizations to fill openings.
"It's a constant struggle right now," Nielsen said. "We're just encouraging people to take action however they can."
A growing need
A new Gallup poll found that more Americans are donating money to charities than in 2020, but fewer people are volunteering.
Throughout the pandemic, Minnesota nonprofits have pivoted to weather volunteer shortages, especially as COVID-19 concerns sidelined older adults more susceptible to complications from the coronavirus. Some organizations were able to shift events to projects volunteers could do safely at their own homes, whether it was filling backpacks or mentoring online.
But like many food shelves, Williams and his 35 colleagues can't do the work alone, and he can't afford to hire more staff, he said. Volunteers put together about 40,000 culturally specific meals each week that Every Meal distributes to families in the Twin Cities, Mora and Cambridge.
As the pandemic drags on, the need for help hasn't subsided. Minnesota's 350 food shelves were on pace to end 2021 with 3.7 million visits, just below the record 3.8 million in 2020, and more Minnesotans relied on food stamps last year compared with the year before. Now, Williams said the number of Minnesotans seeking food assistance is climbing, especially after the expanded federal child tax credit ended.
"There's a long recovery to be had and we're still in the middle of a pandemic," he said.
Pre-COVID, Every Meal drew 170 volunteers per shift. Now, only about 20 people show up for a shift — down from 45 people needed for each event to allow for social distancing. (Masks are also required.) So on Monday, instead of closing as usual for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Williams will work, running an extra volunteer shift. He's adding more shifts during evenings and weekends to expand options for volunteers and even buying radio ads for the first time to put out a call for help.
"It's been a long two years. We've been burning both ends of the candle for a long time," Williams said. "If everyone took action … our community would be a much better and stronger place."