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Food shelves grapple with even more demand after COVID emergency federal food assistance expire

Visits to food shelves at a record high
Visits to food shelves at a record high 02:11

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- Visits to Minnesota food shelves hit record highs in 2022, doubling from the previous year and even more than the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the recent end to the extra federal food assistance is adding another challenge to the crisis, advocates say.

"What comes in on Monday goes out by Tuesday and we're kind of always playing this catch-up game of making sure our food shelves are full," said Alisha Weis, advancement director for Prism, a nonprofit in Golden Valley that provides social services, including a food shelf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides benefits to low-income people and families that are used to purchase food. During the pandemic, that program got an emergency boost, putting extra money for groceries in the pockets of people who qualify.

In March, those extra benefits expired in states that had been granted waivers extending them, including Minnesota. Every eligible household will receive at least $95 less per month and some with higher qualifying incomes will see reductions of  $250 or more, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Prism saw an 80% increase in new families at the food shelf from February to March, which Weis attributes to the now-expired pandemic policy.

"[We] are hearing firsthand how even that $95 a month allowed them to stretch their budgets further. It allowed them to pay for the light bill, to pay for their rent, to even have a fun night out with their family," she said. "Without that being there, families are really going to be struggling to continue to stretch those budgets further."

The uptick in visits to places on the frontlines like Prism means food banks like Second Harvest Heartland need enough supply to meet that demand. Second Harvest is the "backbone" to the hunger relief network in Minnesota and western Wisconsin that sources, repacks and distributed millions of pounds of food every year.

But CEO Allison O'Toole said stocking up food to send out has been more challenging, too. Donations from corporate partners, like big grocery stores, are down, so Second Harvest is purchasing more of its supply.

"That's costing us 20-30% more right now because prices are so high," O'Toole said. "So we feel the same crunch that consumers do at the grocery store right now and it's really hard."

O'Toole hopes there's a solution at the state capitol: increasing funding to the Farm to Food Shelf program, which provides state grant money to support local farmers and producers so they donate food to Second Harvest Heartland that would otherwise be unharvested or discarded.

The organization is hoping for a $4.4 million increase per year to the program. The state legislature is just beginning the process of finalizing the next two-year budget, which includes a surplus of more than $17 billion.

"It puts local food to really good local use," she said. "It puts pressure on us to raise more money, but we can't charity our way out of this issue. We can raise money, but we need everyone at the table with us problem-solving and that includes the legislature."

Weis also said Prism is seeing a 40% decline in products it gets from rescuing food that would otherwise go to waste at local grocery stores, so the organization is having to purchase more food, too.

Weis with Prism said support from the community is essential for the organization to keep its shelves stocked.

"A $5 reoccurring donation is just as great as a $5,000 gift," she said. "Donations are more important than ever."

To donate to Prism, click here. The Minnesota FoodShare fundraising campaign, which benefits food shelves across the state, is ending Sunday. You can donate here.

If you need to find a food shelf in your area, click here

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