The food shelf at Neighborhood House, in St. Paul's West Side, features fresh produce. Credit: Neighborhood House

On a breezy weekday morning, Mai Vang is sorting through a shopping cart full of food on a sidewalk outside of a community center in St. Paul’s West Side. She examines several items, favoring fresh produce, filling a large wicker basket she brought from home.

At one point, Vang stops on a frozen box of vegetable oil spread. In her limited English, she asks one of the volunteers what the item is. It’s like butter, the attendant explains, and Vang places it back in the cart and goes instead for zucchini and winter squash. 

After she finishes, Vang slings her basket behind her back like a backpack. She starts walking home to an extended family of 12 two blocks away.

Vang, who is Hmong, has been coming to the food shelf at Neighborhood House roughly once a month for the past two years. But the experience has changed in an era of pandemic. Customers now arrive at a parking lot behind the building and call to request items. Volunteers in masks take their orders, gather and bag the food and bring it outside. 

If current trends continue, Neighborhood House and the many food shelves like it across the state will not only be interacting differently with customers like Vang for the foreseeable future. They’ll be seeing many new ones.  

Food shelf demand is increasing for two reasons: The COVID-19 pandemic and property destruction during protests over the police killing of George Floyd turned some neighborhoods into food deserts. Experts say the problem is likely to get worse if Congress lets supplemental unemployment benefits expire at the end of this month. 

In April, May and June, Neighborhood House saw the rate of new families using its shelves hit around 400 each month—more than doubling its overall monthly average compared to before the pandemic. 

“We’re seeing a large number of people who we’ve never seen before,” said Sarah Berger, director of resource development and communications at Neighborhood House.

Across town on St. Paul’s East Side, the food shelf operated by Comunidades Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES), which also serves a large immigrant population, went from assisting roughly 150 to 200 families each week before the pandemic to between 400 and 500 weekly visits now.*

Those numbers point to an alarming rise in food insecurity that medical experts say must be addressed to guarantee individual good health. 

“Before someone can pay attention to high blood pressure or depression or heart disease, or even in protecting themselves against COVID-19, they first need to take care of the foundations of their health, which is their food, their housing and their safety,” said Hannah Lichtsinn, an internal medicine doctor and pediatrician at HealthPartners. “COVID-19 has disrupted the foundation for a lot of people because they’re lost their jobs, they’ve lost the way they finance their food.”

Joe Walker, a program specialist at Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit that helps coordinate government assistance to food shelves, said that statewide, food shelf visits increased by 8.5 percent, or about 130,000 visits, from January to May compared to the same time last year. In total, food shelves saw roughly 1.5 million visits during that time.

“We usually see a 3 to 3.5 percent increase from year to year, so seeing 8.5 percent is significant,” said Walker, who compiled the numbers. 

Most of this growth is happening in the Twin Cities, Walker said, as food shelf use in greater Minnesota has remained relatively flat. In particular, Walker said St. Paul’s East Side and southeast Minneapolis, which is also home to large immigrant populations, have seen the biggest growth.

As clear as the trend is, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Walker’s numbers include 350 food shelves that get support from the federal government through The Emergency Food Assistance Program. But they don’t account for independent food drives that have popped up, especially after the George Floyd killing. 

Volunteers and attendants deliver food for curbside pickup outside Neighborhood House. Credit: Neighborhood House

Berger said those independent food drives tell “a really important story that I’m not sure we fully understand.”

“You can drive through south Minneapolis and within a mile you might see a couple of popup food stands by neighbors who want to help, and people can just walk by and pick up what they need,” she said. “There isn’t any data that I have seen that quantifies what that looks like.” 

The trends point to an increase in food insecurity—something that’s been happening incrementally across Minnesota for the past two decades, according to Hunger Solutions’ data. The biggest spike came during the midst of the Great Recession in 2008 and the beginning of 2009, when visits went up by nearly one million. They have not gone down since, even as the economy improved. 

Walker attributes this to a variety of reasons, including more seniors using food shelves and average wages not keeping up with inflation. He and Hunger Solutions Executive Director Colleen Moriarty also attribute the popularity of Minnesota’s food shelves to a more successful model compared to other states. The state’s emergency food system, a loose network with support from the state government and supplies from seven food banks, has been operating since the 1980s, Moriarty said, giving it a unique institutional heft.

“That’s why you don’t see lines of cars like in Houston or other places,” she said. 

Among those seniors is Carlos Jimenez, who followed Vang to the Neighborhood House food shelf. He drove up and requested the food he needed over the phone without leaving his car. Jimenez started using the food shelf last year after sciatic nerve pain and herniated discs caused him to end his job working in transportation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. 

“It’s a difficult problem,” Jimenez said about his back and leg pain. “I cannot always walk.”

Jimenez and his wife, a retired teacher, left their hometown of Mérida, Venezuela, nine years ago. They came to Minnesota to, among other things, be near their daughter, who works as a teacher in the Twin Cities.

Since leaving his job at the airport in late 2018, Jimenez has used the food shelf a handful of times—six times in 2019 and two so far this year. He and his wife often rely on their daughter for support, he said. After a volunteer delivered two grocery bags to his backseat, Jimenez drove back to his home in Como Park. 

Other elderly customers opt to get their food delivered to home, as evidenced by the eight bags of food that Metro Mobility picks up later in the morning. 

When social distancing became the norm, Moriarity said the food shelves “responded tremendously” in adapting to boxing up and delivering food. Much of this was possible because of a $4 million fund approved by the state Legislature that Hunger Solutions helped facilitate. 

Despite how well the state’s emergency food system is working, a rise in food insecurity still has major implications for the overall health of the state’s population. 

Lichtsinn, co-founder of the Minnesota Immigrant Health Care Alliance, said she frequently sees patients who do not have consistent access to healthy food. The problem has gotten worse since the pandemic began.  

“It’s hard to take care of pretty much any other need that you have if you don’t have access to food,” said Lichtsinn.

Food shelves and food networks are preparing for another possibility that might further their increase in demand—the loss of an additional $600 per week in unemployment insurance that Congress approved in its COVID-19 stimulus relief package. The additional benefit is set to expire at the end of this month, and Congress and President Trump have yet to agree on extending it. The loss of such support could lead to an influx of even more new people relying on food shelves. 

“We’re kind of bracing for and trying to prepare for what happens if the additional funds expire,” Moriarty said. 

*Correction: A previous version of this story said CLUES’ food shelf served 300 families a week before the pandemic. That number was actually 150 to 200 families.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...