Local food shelves operated by Keystone Community Services, Open Hands Midway and the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center are struggling to meet large increases in demand for their free groceries and hot meals.

Visits by people struggling to feed their family has jumped by more than 50 percent at Keystone since August, according to Mary McKeown, president and CEO. “We’re struggling to keep up,” she said.

The Open Hands Midway food shelf at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 436 Roy St., is expanding its hours to meet a recent doubling in demand, according to board chair Kay Kuehn. Hot meals are served at the church every Monday, and bagged lunches, fresh produce and bakery items are distributed on Wednesdays, Kuehn said. The food shelf is open two days each month, but Kuehn is hoping to expand that to weekly.

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Midway food shelf coordinator Theng Yeng Xioing of Keystone Community Services filled an order last week for patron Brenae Williams (left). Photo by Brad Stauffer

“We want to make sure nobody goes without, but we’ve had to push to get what we need,” said Jonathan Palmer, executive director of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, where food shelf demand is way up and rising costs and supply chain issues have become a problem. “We do the best we can with what we have,” Palmer said.

As many as one in 10 Minnesotans, or upwards of 500,000 people, are believed to be “food insecure.”

Minnesota food shelves served by Second Harvest Heartland are averaging a 28 percent increase in visits this year. As many as one in 10 Minnesotans, or upwards of 500,000 people, are believed to be “food insecure,” or unable to afford all of the food they need to sustain themselves, according to Second Harvest spokesperson Allison Griffin.

Second Harvest is the largest of seven food banks in the state. Though it is capable of providing three meals for every $1 it spends, the cost of its food is up 5 percent in 2021 and 25 percent when it comes to popular cuts of meat, Griffen said. The reasons for the cost increases include a shortage of truck drivers to transport food and a shortage of workers in meat processing plants and other factories. The donations of meat the food bank used to receive are almost nonexistent now, Griffin said.

Second Harvest’s cost issues have become more acute since the food bank increased its supplies of fresh food to 63 percent as opposed to 37 percent canned and packaged food. Ideally, Second Harvest sources its fresh food within a 150-mile radius. However, the Upper Midwest’s short growing season makes that next to impossible during the winter.

 

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Costs are growing for food shelves and patrons alike

Keystone is seeing more families and older adults on fixed incomes at its food shelves at 1916 University Ave. and 1459 Rice St. and its mobile food distribution vans. McKeown attributes that to recent increases in the costs of food, utilities and other necessities. “Right now we’re keeping up,” she said, “but our volunteers are having to hustle.”

Keystone served a total of 25,000 people at three mass distribution events this year in Roseville, on Rice Street and at Allianz Field in the Midway. “It was the modern-day version of a bread line,” McKeown said of the most recent distribution in Roseville. “There was a line of cars down County Road C for three hours. It was sobering to see people lined up because they need free food in order to make it all work.”

Like most local food shelves, Keystone gets the bulk of its food from Second Harvest and the Food Group. Purchasing from these food banks is the most cost-effective way to procure food, but nonperishable food donated by church and school groups is still welcome.

Keystone’s food costs have risen con­sid­er­ably, McKeown said, especially for meat, poultry and dairy products. A case of chicken breasts that formerly cost Keystone $50 now costs $115, she noted.

Need for food shelf volunteers is also growing

“It is hectic year-round, but especially now,” said Palmer at Hallie Q. Brown, where turkeys were in especially short supply for Thanksgiving. Palmer credited his staff and long-time volunteers for meeting the rising demand, along with volunteers from such new groups as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Bremer Bank and the Saint Paul Rotary Club.

Kuehn credited a core of regular volunteers for making it possible for Open Hands to meet the growing demand. According to her, patrons at the Midway food shelf like the new system of shopping for what they need rather than receiving a pre-packed box of food. “There’s dignity in being able to choose,” she said.

At Open Hands, patrons are allowed one visit per month, and only one patron may shop at one time due to COVID-19 precautions. Open Hands does not ask questions to determine eligibility. “If a CEO walks in, we will serve them,” Kuehn said.

Open Hands does not deliver food to people who are homebound, but Keystone and Hallie Q. Brown do. All three programs are in need of more volunteers either to work at the food shelves or to make deliveries. Hallie Q. Brown is also accepting donations of winter clothing, household cleaning supplies, hygiene products and toys.

For more information on the food shelves or how you can help, contact hallieqbrown.org (651-224-4601), keystoneservices.org (651-645-0349) or openhandsmidway.org (651-646-6549 ext. 4).

— Carolyn Walkup

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