Data released Friday by Hunger Solutions Minnesota revealed just how 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic impacted food shelves across the state.
According to the data, overall food shelf visits rose 7% in Minnesota in 2020. Seniors in Minnesota increased their food shelf visits by 31% with 121,341 more senior visits than in 2019.
Rural Minnesota food shelves saw the largest percentage increase in senior visits.
"Big Stone County saw a 532 percent increase in senior visits compared to 2019 and Chippewa County was up 214%," said Elizabeth Koehl, the outreach director for Prairie Five Community Action, which operate four food shelves in Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac Qui Parle, Swift, and Yellow Medicine counties.
The COVID-19 outbreak forced Prairie Five Community Action to close their senior meal site last March.
"We did do more of a grassroots initiative," Koehl said. "We started calling seniors in our service area and offered services like frozen meals, shelf-stable meals, and emergency boxes of food from Second Harvest Heartland."
Prairie Five also utilized their previously purchased hot and cold truck to deliver meals and also set up drive-through events where seniors had meals placed in their vehicles in a COVID-safe environment.
"I think a lot of food shelves wanted to adapt and make sure that seniors could get served and be safe," said Rachel Holmes with Hunger Solutions Minnesota. "With food shelves switching to drive-up or delivery, seniors were able to come visit which was safer for them than going to a grocery store."
With COVID-19 forcing food shelves to change on a dime, the lasting implications could mean food is more accessible to seniors and others moving forward.
"Food shelves are really realizing the need in the senior community especially as they're hesitant to visit for several different reasons," Holmes said. "I think adapting to a different service model and expanding to reach that population was huge."
Over 1.3 million visits to Minnesota food shelves came from children according to Hunger Solutions Minnesota. Holmes says programs like the federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Program (PEBT) provided much needed resources for low-income families.
Universal grab-and-go school lunches available to all children provided relief for all families whose children were in distance learning.
"That reduced some of the reliance for families on food shelves," Holmes said. "While the food demand for children increased, we didn't see it reach the level of demand from seniors."
The food supply kept up with demand according to Koel, who praised their relationship with Second Harvest Heartland.
"They definitely have been a tremendous blessing to the food shelf the past year and always have been," Koehl said. "They keep our shelves stocked and allow us to provide ample access to food to all of our neighbors in need."
On Thursday, News Talk 830 WCCO along with Land O' Lakes, Lindus Construction and Compeer Financial hosted "Let's Kick Hunger Day."
The WCCO listeners heard the call to help the food insecure by raising $544,974 for Second Harvest Heartland! Thursday's total more than doubles the 2020 total raised.
Hennepin County saw a 17 percent increase in food shelf visits and a 39 percent increase in senior visits in 2020.