Hunger is on the rise in Minnesota and so too are the opportunities for people of good will to help alleviate that hunger. One in five children in Minnesota is suffering from food insecurity. That is up from one in eight children before the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Second Harvest Heartland, the agency that stocks food shelves in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

Second Harvest is calling this year’s demand for emergency food assistance the highest the U.S. has seen since the Great Depression. “COVID has undone more than a decade’s worth of progress in reducing Minnesota’s food insecurity rate,” said Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole. “More people than ever are facing hunger today, and the hardships will only intensify as winter sets in and grocery budgets take a back seat to non-negotiable expenses like heat, medication and internet service for distance learning.”

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Volunteer Judy-Ann Ehrlich hands Saint Paul College student John Yang a bag of groceries from the Keystone Community Services Foodmobile during its monthly stop on December 2 in the parking lot west of the school. Photo by Brad Stauffer
More than 1 million Minnesotans have applied for state unemployment benefits since March. However, the federal stimulus payments of last spring are a distant memory, and the relief offered by such public programs as Pandemic-EBT are about to run out along with the government moratoriums on tenant evictions and home foreclosures.

The food shelf at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center has seen its base of regular patrons increase by more than 5,000 since March. Keystone Community Services recorded a 93 percent increase in food distributed from its shelves in Merriam Park and Saint Paul’s North End from September 2019 to September 2020. Neighborhood House has seen a 65 percent increase in the number of patrons served at its Francis Basket food shelf in Highland Park.

The growing need has strained the resources of food shelves in neighborhoods served by the Villager. The food shelf at the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in Summit-University has seen its base of regular patrons increase by more than 5,000 since March. Keystone Community Services recorded a 93 percent increase in food distributed from its shelves in Saint Paul’s Merriam Park and North End neighborhoods from September 2019 to September 2020. Neighborhood House has seen a 65 percent increase in the number of patrons served at its Francis Basket food shelf in Highland Park.

   

The three food shelves have had to change the way they distribute food since the pandemic began. Patrons now pick up their orders curbside or have them delivered to their home instead of selecting the food off the shelves themselves.

Keystone, in addition to offering curbside pickup at its food shelves at 1916 University Ave. and 1459 Rice St., operates a Foodmobile with stops at such locations as the University of Saint Thomas, the University of Minnesota’s Saint Paul campus, Saint Paul College and Central Towers in downtown.

New this year is delivery to the homebound, to mostly elderly people, through Keystone’s partner­ships with Metro Mobility and Transit Link. Keystone is planning to shift that program to volunteer-based deliveries in January. Twenty-four volunteers will be needed each week, according to president and CEO Mary McKeown.

 

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In addition to these food programs, Keystone conducted several drive-through distribution events through the USDA’s new COVID Food Assistance Program (CFAP). That federal program included fresh food from farmers who had lost their restaurant customers to the state shutdown. Keystone’s own surveys have indicated that close to 60 percent of the 32,900 people who benefited from the program were new to seeking food support this year.

Keystone’s plan is to continue serving those CFAP clients, many of whom have lost their jobs and expect to be out of work for a long time, McKeown said. However, she is concerned that the program may not be renewed next year.

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Keystone Foodmobile manager Eleanor Heberlein (right) signs in patrons as they line up for their grocery order in the parking lot of Saint Paul College. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Hallie Q. Brown distributed 53,400 pounds of food to more than 1,500 individuals in October, in addition to 8,000 pounds at local school sites and 3,000 pounds at local churches, according to executive director Jonathan Palmer. “As long as there’s a need, we’ll accept new clients,” he said. Community center staff are now handling the packing of food boxes, which are customized for special dietary and cultural needs. “We lost 90 percent of our volunteers (since the COVID outbreak),” Palmer said. “They were mostly seniors who are vulnerable (to infection).”

Hallie Q. Brown gets its food through Second Harvest and the Food Group as well as partnerships with Hy-Vee, Cub Foods and Mississippi Market. The food markets donate perishable food they have been unable to sell.

Food donations are always welcome at Neighborhood House’s Francis Basket food shelf at 1293 E. Maynard Drive, according to Sarah Berger, director of resource development, although monetary donations are preferred. “We try to make sure that anyone in Saint Paul who needs food gets it,” she said, “and we can make a dollar go farther than people who donate food they purchase at the grocery store.”

The three local food shelves also welcome new volunteers. For information on how you can help, contact Hallie Q. Brown at hallieqbrown.org or 651-224-4601; Keystone at keystoneservices.org or 651-645-0349; or Francis Basket at neighb.org or 651-789-2500.

The Saint Paul Public Schools continues to distribute food during school vacations and while its schools are closed for distance learning. The district has distributed 13 million meals since mid-March. Saint Paul families with school-age children are eligible for the free meal boxes, which they can pick up at five different high schools or have delivered by school bus.

Free food is also distributed by smaller programs in the area, including Palace Community Center at 781 Palace Ave. from 2-4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Dunning Recreation Center at 1221 Marshall Ave. from 2-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; the Department of Indian Work at 1671 Summit Ave. (contact interfaithaction.org or call 651-789-3849); and the Miniharvest monthly produce distribution (next scheduled from 7:30-10 a.m. Saturday, December 19) at Minnehaha United Methodist Church, 3701 E. 50th St. in Minneapolis.

Free packaged meals and lunch bags are also available at select times at the Midway YMCA at 1761 University Ave. and the Salvation Army at 401 W. Seventh St.

People who would like to help the hungry this holiday season can feed twice as many people by donating money to Second Harvest Heartland. Second Harvest will match all monetary donations received between now and December 31. For information, visit 2harvest.org.

— Carolyn Walkup

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