Searing images of hunger in the U.S. have gone viral: cars lined up for miles at food banks in April; piles upon piles of bags at drop sites in Minneapolis in June.
A “hunger surge” is here and is expected to continue across Minnesota, according to Second Harvest Heartland, which supports central Minnesota and western Wisconsin food banks. The surge translates to 1 in 8 Minnesotans facing hunger, up from 1 in 11 last year. That’s an additional 275,000 people.
But how are people – and the organizations who serve them – faring here in the second Congressional District? Hunger in the suburbs and rural communities in our district can be more hidden than in larger cities. According to state statistics, unemployment across the district is hovering around 10 percent, roughly triple what it was last year. This is similar to statewide averages.
The Open Door Pantry, based in Eagan, scaled up its operations to meet the increased demand, adding a series of drive-thru distributions on top of its normal operations. According to Executive Director Jason Viana, more than 65% of families who have come to these events have never used a food shelf before.
“The emergency food system was at capacity before COVID,” he said. “We are having to be creative to find new ways to make food available to more people in a safe manner.”
Overall, the volunteer-lead organization used the flexibility of its mobile food program to go from serving 7,000 people each month pre-COVID, to more than 18,000 people in May.
Skyrocketing needs have been just part of the challenge. While food shelves are considered essential operations, many depend heavily on volunteers, who very often are senior citizens and therefore at high risk in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We saw a really big increase in demand when things started to shut down,” said Susan Schroeder, Director of Mission Fulfillment at Neighbors, Inc., in South St. Paul. The food shelf serves about 600 families per month. “We had to be really nimble,” to handle increased demand with no volunteers, Schroeder noted. The organization’s Clothes Closet has been shuttered since March, but is anticipated to reopen in August.
At the Red Wing Area Food Shelf, in contrast, demand decreased during the spring months, according to board member Dee Bender. Bender speculated that some families avoided visits to the food shelf during the shelter-in-place order and relied on other supports. However, the organization anticipates an uptick in visits later this summer, particularly as the federal enhancements to unemployment insurance run out at the end of July. The food shelf serves 400-500 people during a typical month, she noted.
All three organizations have retooled operations, focusing on pre-packaged bundles to minimize face-to-face contact, rather than having clients select their own items, and using curbside pickup or drop sites.
Neighbors, Inc. and the local DARTS senior services have partnered up to bring food to seniors who have been sheltering in place. The Open Door organized drive-thru operations that served schoolkids and their families during distance learning in the Burnsville/Eagan Savage district. Their “Pop-Up Produce Drive Thrus” have served thousands of families across Dakota County.
All of the organizations reported that while the road ahead may be long and difficult, generous donations from community members have helped them meet the needs so far. Sustained financial support is critical, but public acknowledgment of the role the pantries play is also important – particularly since so much of the work is done by volunteers.
“A food shelf is never closed,” said Shroeder. As Minnesota moves into a second wave of the pandemic, it’s important “to know that we won’t be forgotten as essential workers. We’ve gone through a collective trauma, and we’re different now.”