More Minnesotans have visited food shelves this year than any other year on record, continuing an unprecedented surge in demand for food assistance that began with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minnesota's nearly 400 food shelves are on pace to record 5.1 million visits in 2022, according to preliminary data — the highest number in the state's history and far surpassing the record 3.8 million visits in 2020 when the pandemic first hit, spurring furloughs and layoffs. From Bemidji to Burnsville, food shelves are seeing a jump in the number of people in need, especially older adults and families seeking help for the first time.
"We've got more people than ever coming through," said Michelle Ness, executive director of PRISM, a Golden Valley nonprofit that's serving more than double the number of people it did in 2019 and more than in the past two years. "This isn't sustainable. We're the safety net to the safety net."
A steady stream of clients navigated snowy roads Tuesday to pick up toilet paper, apples, bread and other essential items from PRISM's food shelf. There was the single mother who doesn't have child care and depends on the free food to feed her two children. The Russian couple who moved to Minnesota two months ago and are eager to find work while navigating a new language. The 71-year-old retired airline mechanic who cares for his ailing brother.
"A lot of people out there, they do need this," said Zandra Ankle, a 64-year-old retiree who picked up cereal and other items Tuesday to supplement her increasingly expensive trips to the grocery store. "When hard times come, people help each other."
As of October, the state's food shelves recorded 4.6 million visits — a million more visits than in all of last year, according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a St. Paul nonprofit that operates a helpline and tracks data.
While the state has historically low unemployment rates, more Minnesotans are living paycheck to paycheck, stifled by rising rents and soaring food prices. Wages, especially for low-income jobs, aren't keeping pace. COVID emergency relief, from federal stimulus checks to the expanded child tax credit, buoyed families' finances in 2021 — but once that ended, lines began to form again at many food shelves.
"It's easy for middle class people to feel like, 'Hey, we bounced back' ... but for those who were really struggling to begin with, this has only made it worse," Ness said.
Food stamps up
More Minnesotans are also receiving food stamps this year. Nearly 450,000 people were enrolled in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in October, nearly 20,000 more than a year ago. While that's lower than the post-Great Recession record of 538,000 in 2013, it's 70,000 more people on food stamps than in 2019.
"Those numbers are really high," said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner of children and family services at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "Traditionally, when folks think about their budget, they'll pay for their electricity, they'll pay for rent, and food tends to be the last."
Brown said a small part of the increase in food stamps is due to the state's expansion of income limits earlier this year. Under the new limit, a family of three with an annual income of up to $46,000 before taxes is eligible. During the pandemic, the state also made it easier to apply for food stamps online at mnbenefits.mn.gov.
Still, a large portion of the new Minnesotans using food stamps are lower-income residents, who usually take longer to stabilize financially after a crisis, Brown said.
During the Great Recession of 2007-09, the number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves doubled and never returned to pre-recession levels. Nonprofit leaders now expect the elevated need to continue into 2023 or beyond, straining organizations giving out more food for a third consecutive year — and all while facing increased food costs and declining donations.
"Everybody is feeling the pressure to do everything we can to get the food out there, but it's not as accessible as it once was," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions. "We've got to pitch in and find food for people in a way we haven't done before."
During the last legislative session, Hunger Solutions pushed for $8 million for food shelves, food banks and meal programs, and $15 million for capital investments such as expanding food shelves. Neither proposal passed.
While the food is free to its customers, PRISM must buy most of it. Grocery stores are scaling back donated food, Ness said, forcing PRISM to spend more and purchase about 60% of its produce, baby diapers and other items this year. With less money coming in from donors than in the past two years, the organization will end the year in the red.
"If we weren't purchasing food, the shelves would be barren," Ness said. "Hunger doesn't take a holiday."
The Feeding Our Future fraud scandal has cast new scrutiny on nonprofits even though food shelves are not part of the same federally funded meal program that Feeding Our Future is accused of defrauding. Feeding Our Future relied almost entirely on government funding while food shelves rely mostly on individual donations.
"For those of us working tirelessly to address hunger, it's infuriating," Ness said.
In Burnsville, appointments for 360 Communities' food shelf are booked until January. The nonprofit, which also operates food shelves in Apple Valley, Farmington, Lakeville and Rosemount, is fielding triple the number of calls for financial or food help this year compared with last year.
Many Bemidji families are struggling to afford basic essentials, with the number of children fed by the Bemidji Community Food Shelf up 40% from last year. Donations are down while costs are ballooning for everything from eggs to butter.
"We're really a stop-gap measure for people," said Mike Olson, the nonprofit's executive director. "I expect these numbers to be with us for the foreseeable future."
In South St. Paul, Neighbors Inc. has also spent more money on food than ever before while adding direct food distributions to Dakota County apartments. The increased need, along with the new methods of delivering food, has led to an 80% hike in the amount of food distributed from last year.
"In the past six months or so, we've seen things skyrocket," said CEO Charlie Thompson, adding that many of the new visitors to the food shelf are working families. "And to me, that's the most staggering part."
"Right now, things are tough," Thompson said. "But I believe our community is going to step up and help make sure our neighbors in need don't go hungry."
HOW TO GET HELP ...
To apply for food stamps or other benefits, go to mnbenefits.mn.gov. To see if you're eligible for food stamps or to find free meals and food shelves, go to hungersolutions.org or call the Minnesota Food HelpLine at 1-888-711-1151. Call 211, run by the Greater Twin Cities United Way, to be connected with food, mental health or housing assistance.
... AND HOW TO HELP
Donate to your local food shelf or food bank, or volunteer at a nonprofit. To find one near you, go to hungersolutions.org.