min. food shelves battling to meet rising demand

More Minnesotans are seeking help from food shelves this summer as the high cost of everything from gas to groceries is forcing more people to rely on food assistance — some of them for the first time.

Nonprofits across the state are seeing an influx in demand amid high inflation, with some organizations serving more people now than in the summers of 2020 or 2021 when the need for food assistance spiked because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From December to June, food shelf visits in Minnesota rose 57%, according to preliminary data from Hunger Solutions Minnesota, an advocacy group. And the number of visits isn’t likely to dip back to 2019 levels anytime soon, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions.

More Minnesotans visited food shelves in 2020 than in any year on record as the pandemic led to furloughs and layoffs. Food shelf visits dropped slightly in 2021, but the number was still higher than in 2019.

“It may be years before we recover,” Moriarty said. “I don’t see it going down until the prices of food go down.”

While COVID concerns are waning and the state has low unemployment, rents are going up and wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation. The consumer price index was up 8.7% in the Twin Cities in May compared with a year ago, reflecting high consumer prices across the nation and globe.

“People that are disabled and poor and unable to make ends meet are going to continue to get hammered by this economy,” said Matthew Ayres, director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf in Minneapolis, which is seeing a record number of people in need. “That is the danger of getting ‘back to normal’ — assuming that everybody is doing well.”

In June, about 436,000 Minnesotans were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Fewer residents are using food stamps than in 2021, but the number of recipients is still above 2020 and 2019 levels, according to state data.

High inflation is also hampering the budgets of food shelves, which use purchases from food banks and other providers to supplement food donations. Ayres said his food shelf will be over budget this year by more than 20% because of the increase in clients and food costs.

Joyce Uptown is spending about $15,000 more than expected on eggs alone because of price hikes, and Ayers started a fundraiser asking donors to “sponsor an egg.” He’s turning away new clients due to a three-week waitlist.

“We’re getting hit with this double-whammy right now … both in need and in prices,” said Ayres, one of three employees at the small nonprofit that occupies a cramped Victorian house in Uptown.

In June, Joyce Uptown gave out 55,000 pounds of food to 2,800 people. One of them was Nancy Layeux, 79. She used to volunteer at the food shelf but now goes there once a month herself for groceries to supplement what she can buy on her fixed income.

Social Security “doesn’t last as long,” she said. “The check didn’t go up, but the food did.”

The Minneapolis-based nonprofit Loaves & Fishes is on pace to dish out 4 million free meals this year, triple the number of meals it provided in 2019. More rural residents are driving to the metro area to receive meals, so the organization is expanding to St. Cloud and looking to add more outstate sites.

“We’re seeing new people every single day,” said Cathy Maes, executive director of Loaves & Fishes.

In St. Paul, Neighborhood House’s markets supplied food to more than 3,000 people in June, more customers than in each of the two previous Junes. Many of them were seeking help for the first time, said Nancy Brady, who leads the nonprofit. With meat and other items costing more, they’re giving out more dried beans and canned chicken.

“We’re trying to stretch our dollars so people can eat,” she said.

At the start of the pandemic, food shelves received an infusion of federal and state aid and a surge in donations. But the extra government aid and community support since have wanted.

Hunger Solutions lobbied for $8 million from the Legislature for food shelves, food banks and meal programs, and sought $15 million for capital investments such as expanded food shelves. Neither proposal passed in the last session, though the state Department of Human Services recently allocated $5 million in federal COVID relief funds to food banks and tribes, giving the state’s food supply a temporary boost.

A reduction in free food from the government and retailers means the Community Emergency Assistance Programs (CEAP) food shelf in Brooklyn Center is spending more than double what it did last year on food. The number of new families visiting the food shelf has also doubled.

“That is extremely telling,” said Clare Brumback, president of CEAP. “Folks who were getting by then are in a position of need with rising costs.”

In Bloomington, Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) have trimmed the amount of food it buys to adjust for higher costs, resulting in shelves that are increasingly sparse. The nonprofit just launched an emergency fundraiser and has scaled back the amount of food it provides to each person.

“We’re sensing this urgency right now,” said Caley Long of VEAP. “It’s not just the normal pressures. With inflation… it keeps ratcheting up for people.”

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