Food insecurity rises across Minnesota – Austin Daily Herald > Minnesota

Food insecurity is rising across Minnesota

Published Monday November 21, 2022 3:46 pm

By Dan Gunderson

Minnesota is likely to see a record number of visits to grocery shelves this year.

Demand is driving nonprofits to review budgets and consider new resource utilization opportunities.

The Salvation Army is one of many organizations responding to the growing demand for food. The organization’s Northern Division serves hundreds of hot meals each day at locations throughout Minnesota and North Dakota. Local units also operate grocery shelves.

Major Scott Shelbourn said demand was up 15 to 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

“Although many people have seen a pay rise over the past year, inflation has eaten it up,” he said. “So if we look at the 40-year high in inflation, maybe they’re making more money than ever, but because costs have gone up so much it’s just been absorbed. And so they don’t get ahead at all.”

Inflation is hitting organizations like his from both sides, Shelbourn said. The demand for services is increasing and the cost of providing those services is increasing.

The reality is the same at Second Harvest Heartland, which distributes groceries to nearly 400 grocery shelves in Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

“Families are really struggling right now. We just got through the hungriest summer and fall in recent memory. And the families keep fighting. And I think winter brings the same challenges,” said CEO Allison O’Toole.

Rising demand

Second Harvest Heartland reports that grocery store visits so far this year are 45 percent higher than the same period in 2019 and 2021.

The organization also helps people determine eligibility and apply for the federal dietary supplement assistance program.

Second Harvest reports that through September 2022, SNAP applications are up 47 percent compared to 2021, 58 percent compared to 2020, and 213 percent compared to 2019.

Hunger Solutions, a Minnesota nonprofit that distributes $1.6 million in federal funding to grocery shelves each year, estimates that one in nine Minnesota residents is food insecure and unsure where their next meal will come from .

Five million grocery shelf visits possible

Executive Director Colleen Moriarty said Minnesota could hit five million grocery store visits this year.

“We don’t have final numbers yet, but we’re heading for 1.4 million more grocery store visits this year than in previous years,” she said.

Grocery shelf visits in the state have exceeded three million each year for more than a decade.

Inflation is forcing more people to seek out supplements, but the end of a number of federal pandemic relief programs is also contributing to the rise in food insecurity.

Second Harvest Heartland is buying 93 percent more food for distribution this year as federal food distribution has correspondingly declined from pandemic levels, O’Toole said.

The USDA recently announced plans to expand funding for staple food programs by nearly $1 billion. Some of that aid is expected to reach Minnesota early next year.

But all of these nonprofit leaders expect the trend of growing demand for food aid to continue.

Major Shelbourn said the Salvation Army has discussed the possibility of placing a limit on how often people can visit grocery shelves in the future, and across the region local units are expanding their fundraising goals.

“It’s not just that more people are coming there. They come more often, especially for food,” he said. “And if you look at the trend, we all expect that there will be additional costs next year. So our Christmas goals have all increased.”

Nonprofits want more government help

Hunger Solutions’ Colleen Moriarty said Minnesota has one of the best food distribution networks in the country, but state funding is inadequate.

“The fact is how much money is distributed across the state, we have to look at it and increase it. It’s not enough,” Moriarty said. “We have the right system. We just have to support it.”

Second Harvest Heartland’s Allison O’Toole finds it frustrating to see families and organizations like hers continue to struggle to ensure everyone has food on the table.

“Look at our community, we have a super generous corporate sector,” she said. “We have a huge agricultural economy here. We have enough resources to ensure everyone has enough food for their table. We have to make it.”

Congress will begin drafting a new farm bill next year, and O’Toole expects a big push from a nationwide network of organizations for more resources to tackle food insecurity.

Minnesota state lawmakers are also being asked to use some of the budget surplus to increase funding for food distribution.

“There’s more than $10 billion on the table and our community is struggling,” O’Toole said. “We need them to focus on what families need to get by. And a big part of that is being able to put food on the table.”