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Andrea Knodel lived paycheck to paycheck until a cough knocked her off her feet and into the red.

The sickness, which turned out to be COVID-19, landed her in the hospital and unable to work her customer service job at Culligan Water. For the first time in her life, the 44-year-old needed help from a Brooklyn Center food shelf.

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“It’s all very overwhelming,” Knodel told two masked employees as they set a box of bananas, eggs, bread and other groceries on her front porch. “This has been basically a struggle, so I’m grateful.”

More than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last four weeks, and that upending of so many livelihoods is felt keenly at the nation’s food banks.

Demand at many of the 350 food shelves in Minnesota, where every school and thousands of businesses have been shuttered, is double or triple normal levels, with many being first-time users. Organizations that help feed the hungry say the number of Minnesotans needing food stamps could double.

Nationally, long lines of cars have jammed roadways outside food shelves and food banks. Feeding America, a network of food banks, pantries and meal programs, estimates $1.4 billion is needed to sustain the increased demand across the U.S. over the next six months. In a survey of 200 food banks, which supply food pantries and soup kitchens, nearly every one has seen a spike in demand, but more than a third face funding shortfalls.

“I am worried; I think that there are so many unknowns. And I don’t think we have a full grasp yet of how many people will be impacted long-term,” said Tikki Brown, the director of economic opportunity and nutrition assistance at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “Our food shelves are the front lines; they’re the barometer of sorts to see an indicator of what’s happening with our economy.”

Her department is holding weekly calls with food programs statewide and in a survey, 30% said it’s challenging for them to find enough food while 70% say they’re under financial or operational strain.

The urgent rise in demand is already depleting some food shelf supplies, inflating costs and exhausting staff who are scrambling to help, often with fewer volunteers, as they shift to a new model of handing out food curbside or delivering it to people’s doorsteps.

“How are we going to respond to this increase? We can’t do it alone,” said Mary McKeown, CEO of Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, which operates Meals on Wheels and food shelves. She said she worries about meeting the demand long-term, but remains hopeful Minnesota will step up. “As afraid as I am about July, I’m confident we’ll be able to serve whoever comes to our doors.”

The crisis is spurring celebrities, foundations and some of the state’s largest corporations — from Medtronic to 3M — to dole out millions of dollars in emergency aid. Individual online donations are up. And $11 million in extra federal aid this summer will go to the state’s food assistance programs. Another $9 million in state aid is going out to food shelves and food banks as part of a $330 million emergency package, but experts say that money likely will last food programs just three months.

Seeking out help

John Teipel never needed this kind of help before.

Sitting in his blue minivan, the 54-year-old watches the door at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in St. Paul to make sure there are few people around before he feels it’s safe to don a mask to pick up a free dinner.

Teipel had a $15-an-hour part-time job, helping tenants sign leases and answering their questions at a property management company. But when the coronavirus outbreak hit Minnesota, he stopped working, worried that his 2018 heart transplant makes him vulnerable to serious complications from the coronavirus.

The St. Paul resident hasn’t gone to the grocery store, fearing crowded aisles and the expense. Instead, he shows up a St. Paul YMCA to pick up a bagged lunch (when supplies haven’t run out) and drives to the church to grab a takeout dinner, both arranged by the Minneapolis nonprofit Loaves & Fishes. When he gets home, he rations out hearty meals of tacos or shredded pork to get him through the weekends, when meals aren’t available.

“I never used to want to ask for help, but I’ve had to ask for it,” Teipel said. “It was scary. I wasn’t sure what I was walking into.”

Loaves & Fishes’ 40 employees and about 300 volunteers are in overdrive making three times the number of free meals the nonprofit normally serves and distributing them through 37 churches and community centers from Afton to Aitkin. The extra trucks and gas, staff overtime and pricey to-go containers cost $15,000 more a week. The nonprofit buys discounted food from Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of seven food banks in the state, and reuses excess food from restaurants, corporate cafeterias and other places.

“We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked,” executive director Cathy Maes said. “This is Minnesota really taking care of Minnesota. Nonprofits can’t do it without support.”

The meals-to-go model, which provides recipients with more privacy, may outlast the pandemic, Maes added.

The crisis has prompted other new distribution models as well.

In the Twin Cities, Metro Mobility buses are delivering to food shelves’ customers. In southern Minnesota, United Community Action Partnership is using buses and has youth church groups ready to deliver food in Marshall, backfilling behind older, regular volunteers who are staying home because they’re more at risk from COVID-19.

And Loaves & Fishes has joined with Second Harvest to launch a new $5 million effort called Minnesota Central Kitchen, which pays chefs to make meals for people in need. Loaves & Fishes also started collaborating last week with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities to give out meals.

‘Kindness at your front door’

As snow fell outside the Eastside YMCA in St. Paul last week, Joyce Lacey rolled up in her wheelchair to pick up canned vegetables, fruit and containers of lasagna, string beans and potatoes. But the free food wasn’t for her — even though the 58-year-old substitute teacher is out of her work. Lacey, of Woodbury, picked up the donations for four seniors and a single mother with three children who’s out of work from a restaurant and has no car to get to the store.

“I do have the time to pick up stuff for them,” said Lacey, volunteering as part of a small foundation she started to honor her mother. “People are scared to go [to the store].”

In Minnetonka, the ICA Food Shelf is adding masks, toilet paper and bars of soap to food bags. When the nonprofit ran low of soap and cereal supplies, a plea on social media spurred strangers to fill the void; a Minneapolis woman even responded by making 60 pounds of soap.

In Savage, police had to help direct traffic at a mobile food shelf offered by Eagan-based Open Door Pantry. The nonprofit bought a new vehicle to distribute food and signed a lease on more warehouse space to serve some 10,000 Dakota County residents. In March, new clients nearly doubled over February, leading to confusion as some were unaware they need to make an appointment.

“We’re having to kind of train a whole new segment of the population about how to access the help that is available,” said Jason Viana, the nonprofit’s executive director. He said he worries how the system will continue to meet the growing demand. “This is a different world.”

In Golden Valley, about a quarter of visitors to PRISM’s food shelf are first-timers, trekking from across the metro.

“We always talk about hunger being invisible” said Alisha Olson of PRISM. “I think COVID-19 is really bringing to light the vulnerabilities that people face.”

When staff from Community Emergency Assistance Programs (CEAP) in Brooklyn Center dropped off a food shelf donation for Knodel, it was the chicken-noodle soup that brought her to tears.

As one of the hundreds of Minnesotans recovering from COVID-19, the soup will soothe her scratchy throat. But she may not recover as quickly financially as she waits to return to work. Medical bills haven’t yet arrived — and neither has a paycheck since the end of March from her $16-an-hour job. She hopes the federal stimulus and short-term disability checks come soon so she can pay her mortgage.

Until then, the special delivery of free produce, paper towels and two rolls of toilet paper will provide her with essentials — and a bit of hope.

“This is an emotional thing — to see kindness at your front door from people you’ve never met,” Knodel said. “I’m suffering just like everybody else.”

kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141

mara.klecker@startribune.com 612-673-4440