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Charles Capien fishes for flathead catfish at the Minnesota River public access in St. Peter. He sets the pole down on the stands and uses an alarm to tell him when he has a bite. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

With food insecurity expected to increase, deadline for assistance extended

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues without a vaccine or high-quality treatment in sight, a number of crucially important federal government relief programs are set to run out.

That could lead to a spike in food insecurity across the state, according to a new study conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. on behalf of Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities-based food bank, though a new federal program could help stem the tide.

According to the report, the projected spike in hunger will be greater than anything seen since the Great Depression, with the number of Minnesotans who struggle to afford food set to increase by August to 1 in 8, compared to 1 in 11 before the pandemic. That translates to 275,000 more Minnesotans are projected to join the ranks of those facing food security by August, including 112,000 children. According to Second Harvest Heartland, this means area food shelves will be looking at a 65% increase in demand.

Kathy Skogen, who serves as income & health care assistance manager with the Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, said that the number of applications for food assistance programs has increased this month — and she expects that to continue. MnPrairie is the Social Services agency for Steele, Dodge and Waseca counties.

“We expect an increase in benefits greater than what we saw in the last recession,” she said. “We’re doing what we can to prepare, but it will be a challenge.”

In order to help meet rising demand, the Minnesota Department of Human Services announced that it would extend the deadline for families to apply for the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program. The program is a joint initiative of the state Department of Human Services and the Department of Education, with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s designed to assist families with children receiving free or reduced-price meals, SNAP or MFIP benefits.

According to the state, 200,000 families have applied for the program — but an additional 150,000 eligible families have not. To help ensure that the program reaches as many families as possible, the deadline was extended Thursday from June 30 all the way to July 31.

Under the program, DHS is issuing a lump sum payment of $325 per child to help families cover food costs over the next year. Eligible families with children receiving free or reduced-price meals, and SNAP or MFIP benefits have already received these benefits on their EBT cards.

However, families with children who were receiving free or reduced-price meals but not SNAP or MFIP benefits need to sign up for a benefits card, known as a “P-EBT” card, in order to receive payment.

Assistant DHS Commissioner Nikki Farago said that the program will help to ensure that one of the state’s most crucial goals is met — making sure that low-income children are fed over the summer, when school isn’t in session.

“I think we’re really fortunate to be able to implement this program,” she said. “So many children in Minnesota get nutritious meals when they’re in school, but they’re not getting those meals now.”

To further help ensure that children from low-income families remain well fed over the summer, schools across the state are set to shift to the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides millions of meals and snacks to students during the summer.

In March, schools and community organizations began implementing a version of the Summer Food Service Program as an emergency response to the COVID pandemic. Locally, the Faribault and Northfield School districts provided breakfast and lunch for children.

Lunch and breakfast were made available for Faribault locations at seven strategically placed locations throughout the city, while Northfield had meals at three locations in the city as well as four meal distribution bus routes covering 14 stops for 15 minutes each.

Although the two districts are close geographically, they have dramatic socioeconomic differences. With just 26% of students eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches, Northfield is well below the statewide average of 37%. By contrast, more than 60% of Faribault students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Just one Minnesota county, Mahnomen, which sits entirely within the White Earth Reservation, has a higher rate of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

Between March 18 and June 10, more than 20 million meals were provided for children in need through the program, according to a DHS press release. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, meals were provided “grab and go” style locally.

While the Summer Food Service Program typically requires students to eat their meals on site, that’s changed this year. To reduce the risk of worsening the pandemic, students will be able to pick up food to go.

“With new economic hardships due to the pandemic, more Minnesota families than ever need access to nutritious, free meals during the summer months,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said in a prepared statement. “The quick work our schools did this spring to create a meal delivery or pick-up program for our students during these uncertain times was incredible. It is critical we build off our momentum to meet the nutritional needs of our students throughout the summer.”

Food pantries remain open in cities throughout the region, continuing to serve those in need despite the modifications required by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Waseca Area Food Shelf coordinator Nikki Schaeffer said that the food shelf has only seen a modest increase in usage to this point. She said the absence of a larger increase could be attributable to the significant investment by the federal government in stimulus measures.

High school intervention program, iPads for elementary schoolers OK'd

For some students, achieving success isn’t only about learning the material they’re given in school — sometimes what they need, more than anything, is someone to root for them.

To provide extra support to students who may encounter barriers to success — whether it’s academic, social or emotional — Faribault High School will implement a new intervention program for 2020-21. The vision for the program came about through a community-wide collaboration, and the School Board approved the FHS administration team’s plans during Monday’s virtual meeting.

The program the district has envisioned involves “housing” Northfield Healthy Community Initiative employees at FHS to offer support to students who are at risk of not graduating. Two RISE (Realizing Individual Student Excellence) coordinators and two AmeriCorps Promise Fellows will meet directly with at-risk students identified by the high school administration and those students’ parents or guardians to provide support in various areas and connect families to local youth resources.

The Faribault schools has secured grant funding from a number of sources and combined that funding with contributions from Northfield HCI, HealthFinders and Carlton College to implement the program.

FHS Assistant Principal Shawn Peck said the move from the six- to seven-period day in September will make this program achievable this year. Following the success of the mentor/mentee program, Check and Connect, which FHS introduced last year, Peck said one downfall of the powerful interactions between students and mentors was the weekly check-ins weren’t enough. With the new program, time with the Northfield HCI members will be built into students’ schedules.

Operating outside existing support programs like Ninth Grade Academy, the new intervention program at FHS would support students who have may have already gotten off track. While ninth-graders receive intensive support through Ninth Grade Academy, AVID or Falcon seminars every other day, Northfield HCI staff would work specifically with sophomores, juniors and seniors.

“We would start with juniors and seniors who are either at risk of falling off track to graduate in an attempt to get them across the finish line,” said Peck.

iPads galore

Elementary teachers requested it, elementary students wrote persuasive speeches about it and the district heard them loud and clear. On Monday, the School Board approved the decision to implement one-to-one iPads for K-5 students.

Tthe district received $676,000 from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) program, district technology coordinator Maria Hanson determined the district could use $288,600 to purchase 700 iPads, three-year Apple care warranties, cases and necessary licenses .The Government’s Emergency Education Fund Relief and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund are the two main funding sources the district would use, both authorized by the CARES Act.

Through this purchase, the district will also allocate devices to local charter and private schools. The district will redistribute its current iPads starting in 2020-21 along with the new, additional inventory.

In addition to providing an opportunity for each student to have an iPad, the CARES Act will allow the Faribault school district to pay a COVID-19 coordinator for the 2020-21 school year.

The coordinator will serve as a point person on internal and external information related to the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring the district and families have planned and are prepared for adjustments or changes in school operations.

Kosmo Esplan stands beside a sign with the initials of his YouTube series, “Some Good News Northfield.”

COVID-positive Faribault prison inmate dies, another in critical condition

A 43-year-old man incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault died Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner is performing an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

The man, identified as Adrian Raymaar Keys, along with a number of other men incarcerated at Faribault, tested positive for COVID-19 on June 4. Keys’ condition deteriorated last weekend, he was hospitalized Monday. The medical examiner will determine the cause of death. If determined to be related to COVID-19 complications, this would be the first such death of a person incarcerated in Minnesota.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Keys,” Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said. “Since the start of the pandemic we’ve worked to take all reasonable steps to minimize the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in the state’s correctional facilities for the well-being of those we serve and our staff.”

The first case of COVID-19 in the Faribault correctional facility was reported on June 3. The Department of Corrections has since been conducting comprehensive testing of all incarcerated men and staff at the facility. More than 200 additional cases have been discovered since the first positive test, with the majority experiencing no symptoms. Three, including Keys, have required hospitalization for their symptoms. Two remain hospitalized — one in critical condition. Currently 1,734 men are incarcerated in the facility.

Rice County on Thursday reported 771 residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. That figure includes the 201 MCF-Faribault inmates. Four Rice County residents have died so far from COVID-19 complications.

Incarcerated individuals in the following DOC correctional facilities have tested positive for COVID-19: Moose Lake, Willow River, St. Cloud, Lino Lakes, and Faribault. Since the start of the pandemic the DOC has conducted 9,704 tests on incarcerated men, women, and youth. Additionally, 2,685 tests have been conducted on staff. Four staff members have been hospitalized related to COVID-19. All staff members hospitalized have since been released.

The DOC has taken a number of steps across the system to manage the risk of COVID-19 entering correctional facilities and spreading, including: implementing “Stay with Unit” plans, enacting mandatory barrier mask policies, and installing hand washing stations in each facility. Each facility has also taken a number of steps specific to the unique environment of each facility. Those plans can be viewed at bit.ly/2B0Su4I.

In addition, the DOC has implemented efforts to reduce facility population to aid virus containment strategies. As of June 25, the DOC had a population of 7,962 in the state’s prisons down from about 8,900 on March 1, 2020.