Food shelves across the metro area are seeing a surge in people needing assistance, often surpassing levels than in the worst days of the pandemic.
Providers say it’s the result of a sinister combination of factors leading working parents and seniors to venture to food shelves for the first time: the rising price of everything — including food — combined with the expiration of a host of COVID-inspired government subsidies, from stimulus checks to tax rebates.
The situation this week prompted Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, to make a dire prediction Thursday.
“We are poised for the hungriest summer in our history,” said O’Toole, whose organization obtains, stores and distributes food to more than 1,000 food shelves, shelters and other meal programs across 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. “I can’t believe I’m saying that after two and half years of a global pandemic. We are there because some of the federal supports, that we know and saw work, are ending … the continuing COVID crisis and sky-high consumer prices. All of that is putting pressure on Minnesota families, and they’re struggling.”
It’s a narrative echoed by operators of food shelves across the Twin Cities, who themselves are struggling to pay higher prices to stock their shelves amid shortages from global supply chain interruptions related to either the coronavirus pandemic or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In the most recent weeks especially, we’ve seen a surge and we’ve been struggling to keep up,” said Nick Contreraz, development and communications manager for Neighborhood House, which currently operates two drive-through grocery pickup locations in St. Paul but in July will return to the pre-COVID grocery store model. “We ended up having to spend unbudgeted money in June.”
As anyone who’s bought food lately knows, things are … not normal.
“There’s just stuff we can’t get right now. I can’t get eggs,” said Joshua Bau, food services manager for Merrick Community Services, which operates two pantries in St. Paul. “Second Harvest didn’t have spaghetti sauce this week. I beg, borrow and steal to get what we can on our shelves. That’s the nature of what we’re going through.”
That was the scenario facing Cynthia Moore of St. Paul on Tuesday as she stocked up at Keystone Community Services’ Midway Food Shelf on University Avenue.
“They usually have way more than this, but everybody’s kinda hurting right now,” Moore said as she walked through the two aisles and gazed over largely empty metal shelves. Boxes that once piled up to the fluorescent lights on the ceiling are nowhere to be found. Thankfully, the pantry still had canned tuna, one of Moore’s favorite foods because she can make many different meals with it.
Moore, who moved to St. Paul from Chicago in 2014, has been living in housing offered through Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground facilities in St. Paul since March 2021. She said she hadn’t needed to take the half hour bus-and-light-rail rides to get to the food shelf for some time; she’s been able to get by on public assistance — but no more, thanks to higher prices.
“It runs out fast,” she said.
NEW PEOPLE NEEDING HELP
Data from several food shelf operators show a troubling trend that might herald a new phase of the post-COVID economy: Much increased traffic at the food shelves is from people who have never been there before.
Keystone, which operates two traditional food shelves and one mobile operation, saw its numbers roughly double in the past 12 months. In April, some 7,166 individuals used their services, compared with 3,050 in May 2021. Out of the roughly 2,700 households Keystone served last month, more than 900 were first-time participants.
“We’re seeing an exponential increase,” said Jen Winterfeldt, director of development and community engagement.
The new households are often families with working parents who managed to get by during the pandemic, likely thanks to government subsidies that have now expired.
Among those subsidies:
- Increased unemployment payments, including an additional $300 per week, for people who couldn’t work because of the pandemic. That ended in September.
- Three rounds of stimulus checks, which often delivered thousands of dollars each to households with multiple children. The last round was in March 2021.
- Monthly payments of $250 to $300 for parents in lower- and middle-income brackets via the expanded federal child tax credit. That program, which Congress approved with no Republican votes, expired in December.
Many economists have said that while such programs, especially the expanded child tax credit, helped reduce childhood poverty and hunger, they also contributed to the inflation that is now hurting those same families.
There was hope among Minnesota’s network of food-providing nonprofits that state funds would help fill the void, courtesy of Minnesota’s projected $9 billion budget surplus. But partisan gridlock at the state Capitol has left the vast majority of those funds unspent.
On Friday, Congress did quietly — and bipartisanly — approve a $3 billion plan that offers limited funds but extends waivers for pre-COVID requirements for people needing assistance.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., convened a roundtable at Arlington Hills Community Center on St. Paul’s East Side to discuss the challenges.
Extending the waivers was a big help, providers told Smith, because it removed both red tape and stigmas associated with requiring families to justify their need for food.
“We finally got to see the programs work the way they were always supposed to,” said Christa DeBoer, director of nutrition for Youthprise, which coordinates meals and snacks offered to youths. “There was dignity in it. You didn’t have to prove yourself.”
The prospects for expanded funding in the future, however, are unclear.
Smith said the next big political discussion on the topic will begin soon, when Congress takes up renewal of the next farm bill, which includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s massive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
In the meantime, food shelf operators said they will continue to lean on charitable donations and food drives to stock the shelves and staff their centers, and not just in the cities themselves.
At Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf, which operates in Oakdale, more than 4,000 families a week are getting groceries, as well as other supplies. After what seemed like a stable period during the pandemic, the traffic has steadily increased over the past three to four months, executive director Jessica Francis said.
New clients include seniors on fixed incomes, such as Social Security, which is adjusted annually for inflation — and unable to keep pace with today’s inflation levels not seen in 40 years. But they’re also seeing professionals, she said.
“We’re seeing people wearing nurse scrubs or other uniforms,” Francis said. “They’re clearly coming from work, but they need to make their incomes stretch. They’re saying they just can’t make ends meet. Something had to give.”
At the Ralph Reeder Food Shelf in Mounds View, traffic has increased 20 percent to 30 percent in recent weeks, said Sue Peake, program assistant for the pantry, which operates as part of the the Mounds View Public Schools community education program.
“It feels very similar to when the pandemic first began,” she said.