‘I’m really worried about it’: As federal emergency food help ends, Minnesotans voice concerns

At the beginning of the pandemic, Marie Kent left her job in health insurance to be at home full-time with her four years old and seven years old.

The 41-year-old from Minneapolis said it was a tough choice — try to juggle work, parenting and facilitating at-home learning, or leave work to focus on her kids.

But with support from SNAP (the federal program that used to be called food stamps), and an emergency boost in monthly payments, she can afford to stay home.

“It was just me, and I needed to be with them, so that they could have an education,” Kent said. “So at least of all the things that I had to worry about, I didn’t have to worry about where our next meal was going to come from.”

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Now, Kent along with tens of thousands of other Minnesotans, is set to see that extra nutritional assistance run out this month. Congress opted not to extend the program that has pumped $1.3 billion into Minnesota since 2020, instead opting for additional payments to food banks to help families get through the summer, when school meals aren’t available to many children.

SNAP recipients, as well as food shelf leaders and nutrition groups, said they’re nervous about what comes next.

A woman smiles for a photo with her two sons

Marie Kent and her two sons, Oliver and Malcom.

Courtesy photo

“I’m really worried about it, because, oh my God, have you seen grocery store prices?” Kent said. “And we’re going to go back to living very, very, very simply, as opposed to just very simply, when it comes to food. I’m a little nervous, but I think it’ll be okay — question mark. I’m a little nervous.”

Kent said the funds helped her save money on electric bills, clothes for her kids and other expenses over the last three years. And with that financial cushion and savings she’d built up, she was able to go back to school. She is set to start a new job on Monday as a medical assistant.

More than 325,000 Minnesota households benefited from the emergency nutrition funds during the pandemic. And for the average person, the change added an extra $95 per month to the $110 they saw prior to 2020.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the additional payments helped curb food insecurity during the pandemic. With the benefits of lapping and prices for food ballooning, the cut-off is expected to deal with an especially tough blow, said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland.

“This is a big deal. This is just unrelenting for Minnesotans right now,” O’Toole said.

O’Toole said her organization tracked a 93 percent increase in SNAP enrollments compared to before the pandemic, and food shelves are already feeling the pinch of growing need, she said.

“This is devastating for families,” O’Toole said. “It’s just such a hard time for families because it literally is a cliff, it just stops at the end of March.”

Three people stand in front of microphones at a warehouse.

Gov. Tim Walz, center, speaks at a press conference inside the Second Harvest Heartland warehouse with CEO Allison O’Toole, left, and Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Nov. 25.

Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Dom Korbel is the executive director at Community Pathways of Steele County. He said it’s gotten harder to budget for quite popular items such as fresh produce, soup and peanut butter due to growing demand.

Korbel said that in 2021, he tracked an average of 254 shoppers per week. For the most recent six week cycle, the rolling average is 563 shoppers — more than double.

“This is a supply and demand issue. And our ability to raise enough funds to keep up with it is our challenge. We’re working hard to do that but with that level of increase, it’s tough to keep up,” Korbel said.

Dave Rudolph is co-director of the SACA food shelves and thrift stores in the Twin Cities. He said the shelves had seen the number of families coming in more than double last year compared to in 2021.

Rudolph said he is working to bank staples and culturally specific items ahead of an expected increase in traffic this month.

“You try to stock up as best you can. But so much of it comes in, you know, depending on what’s available from the different food banks like Second Harvest for the food group,” Rudolph said. “Having said that, you know, we’re going to take care of everybody.”

People work to pack food on a food shelf

Volunteers sort food for donations at the Second Harvest Heartland food bank in Brooklyn Park, Minn. on Nov. 22.

Tim Evans for MPR News 2021

Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign a bill today sending $5 million to Minnesota food shelves to help fill the gap. Korbel and Rudolph said that would help them weather the expected increase in traffic at their food shelves.

But with a roll out of the funds not expected until April, it might not get to everyone quickly enough, Korbel said.

“We have the capacity to withstand the storm in the short term, so I think April’s going to be fast enough for us. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true for all of my peers doing this work across the country,” Korbel said.

While the timing isn’t perfect, it offers a start, Colleen Moriarty, executive director with Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said.

“Sometimes it takes a little longer than we hoped, but that’s a lot better than next fall, which is the next time they will be eligible for funds from the state,” Moriarty said.

Tikki Brown — the assistant commissioner of Children and Family Services with the Minnesota Department of Human Services — said the Legislature and Congress should still take additional action to help address hunger.

Brown said that state efforts to provide free school meals to all students, boost ongoing nutrition funding at the state level and increase federal spending for SNAP in the Farm Bill could also help. Those conversations are ongoing.

“We know that we need some short term solutions, but we are really hoping that we could have some long term solutions, because we know, we know, we know folks will continue to have difficulties as the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt ,” Brown said.

She also urged those elements about their benefits, or seeking nutrition assistance, to seek additional information from the Department of Human Services.

Food shelf leaders also urged Minnesotans to donate — food or money — to their local food shelves or food banks, if they’re able.

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