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Pandemic heightens unmet need at region's food shelves
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Local food shelf directors say the pandemic has upended their normal client base and increased the need for services.

The pandemic's economic toll has been especially felt for people impacted by government stay-at-home orders, including bar and restaurant employees, and hotel worker, says Josh Ramaker, Rice County Statewide Health Improvement Partnership Coordinator, who works with food shelves throughout the county.

“There’s so much need right now,” he noted.

In Northfield, the Community Action Center established a satellite food shelf in the former Greenvale Park Elementary School building to ensure residents on the north side of the city had access to food. The food shelf was established last August after the Northfield City Council authorized $145,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars to allow for the CAC to support approximately 3,750 families.

The federal funding has also helped establish “Truck to Trunk” drives in Rice and Steele counties, events providing dairy products, frozen meat, chicken, hot dogs, yogurt, cheese and produce to those in need. The first two Steele County events each provided enough food to serve 450 households. The final time, enough food for 1,200 households was distributed in just four hours.

“Support has been amazing both in monetary and food support,” Community Pathways of Steele County Executive Director Nancy Ness said.

“Removing a lot of the barriers has been nice,” added Ramaker.

In this, the 40th anniversary of Minnesota FoodShare — the largest grassroots food and fund drive in the state — community organizations, businesses and faith communities are looking to help stock nearly 300 food shelves statewide, including six in Rice, Steele and Waseca counties.

Moe than $21.5 million dollars and over 7.4 million pounds of food shelf items were during its 2020 campaign, which runs each March. To date, Minnesota FoodShare has distributed over $18 million dollars from its FoodFund to March Campaign participating food shelves. FoodFund includes donations from corporations, individuals, foundations and businesses as well as donations resulting from an annual targeted March Campaign appeal. 

A source of help

Community Pathways' Ness said the economic effects of the pandemic has hit people who'd never before dreamed they'd be food insecure.

That, she said, includes a local businessman and his prominent Steele County family who, due to the pandemic, had trouble affording food. Pathways staff helped ease the anxiety by telling the family that food shelf services were not a handout and instead a source of help. That reminder left the family with smiles on their faces and staff with an increased certainty that the pandemic is having an extraordinary impact on a broad spectrum of residents.

According to the hunger relief organization Feeding America, 42 million may be facing hunger due to the pandemic, including more than 13 million children. According to the organization, food banks nationwide distributed 6 billion meals to people facing hunger in the U.S. last year. An estimated 55% more people are now being served by food banks compared to before the pandemic.

“It’s a strange time,” Ness said.

One of Community Pathways of Steele County's programs seeing a substantial increase in use is its delivery program. Prior to COVID-19, approximately 64 households would be served fresh produce and other food items twice a month. Now, that number has grown to more than 100.

Ness spoke highly of the community’s generosity over the last 12 months. However, 2020 saw a precipitous drop in the number of people Pathways served. In 2019, 8,925 people received Pathways services. Last year, that number dropped to 6,397. Ness that attributed that drop to government stimulus packages, increases in unemployment compensation, and public apprehension in entering a physical store. Now, however, those trends are reportedly increasing once again, and Ness expects revenue levels to return to 2019 amounts this year, especially with vaccines now being rolled out. Families who are at least at 300% times the poverty level can shop at the food shelf. Pathways offers some pre-packaged and choice items but plans to switch to full in-person shopping once the pandemic ends.

Donations can be made at any time during store open hours. However, Pathways is encouraging monetary donations instead of giving food. Monetary donations reportedly allow for reduced-rate purchases for a variety of foods not otherwise available. In 2020, the cost-per-meal was reportedly 12 cents. Approximately 10 meals could be provided for a $1 donation.

“That’s a pretty amazing figure,” Ness noted.

‘We’re trying to get the word out’

To mark this month being Minnesota FoodShare Month, Owatonna Methodist Church church staff are placing buckets at the church and taking food shelf donations, sometimes on a drive-up basis. On March 29, a Holy Week blessing takes place from 7 a.m. to noon, an expanded time for people to donate. People can drop off food donations, a check or offerings.

The Rev. Lisa Vick, pastor at United Methodist Church in Owatonna, said it’s hard to tell whether donations have increased this year but hopes there has been a spike.

“There is so much of a need, so we’re trying to get the word out that there is more of a need this year,” she noted.

As the pandemic continues to deliver uncertainty to many, Vick is relying on a familiar Biblical passage, Matthew 25:35-40, as her motivation to help others through her ministry: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Owatonna elementary school embraces uncertainty this year
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McKinley Elementary staff has embraced the motto “we are all in this together,” according to Principal Justin Kiel.

Several McKinley staff members relayed to the Owatonna School Board how they made it through a year of uncertainty during its meeting last week. The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) school is focusing on three key areas for the 2020-21 academic year: learning about students, cultivating innovation and responsiveness.

One aim this year was to understand and learn more about each other’s stories, whether it was student, staff or family’s stories.

“We needed to know about our students, our families and their backgrounds and really hear from them,” Kiel said. “We know that leads to deeper conversations and more meaningful relationships.”

McKinley’s culturally responsive teaching is one method used to focus on the stories of others, Kiel said. The approach includes an intellectual safety survey asking staff and students to consider how they feel about things like growth mindsets and risk taking. Data collected from the survey is analyzed to determine what the school needs to do in order to do better. Additionally the school is looking to find ways to move dependent learners to become more independent learners and be able to handle their learning on their own and not be afraid to take risks when it comes to learning.

“We’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years at McKinley around equity and knowing ourselves as people on an equity journey,” Kiel said. “We felt that we really needed to have that move into knowing our students also.”

The school is in the process of developing a data protocol to look at trends to see which students are in need and what they need. Kiel believes it will continue to be developed over the next year, with hopes that it will be officially adopted soon after.

“We really feel that we need to hear more of the families, whether it’s a listening session around how things are going at McKinley, or just hearing strengths from families,” Kiel said, adding that he hopes these voices will become a more integral part of the work that the school is doing.

The school has some plans laid out for next school year to potentially bring families into the building to get some feedback about their school experience.

Another main focus for the elementary school this year was cultivating innovation and being flexible. This was shown through the staff’s use of new technologies to accommodate different learning models and helping students stay engaged.

“We have also kind of taken on the mindset of making every second count, which we need this year with the shortened day,” said Tamra Gonzalez, a first grade teacher.

Typically upon arrival at school students would be able to play on the playground in the morning, but the pandemic stopped that playground time. Teachers instead used that time to get students into the classrooms earlier and used the extra time to begin their assessments and build relationships with their students. Gonzalez said that the teacher’s interventions during distance learning were critical in ensuring students had a smooth transition back into the classroom. She highlighted the small group intervention held via Google Meets for kids that were receiving support in reading, saying that it allowed students to get the extra help they needed.

“One of the pieces that McKinley added this year was the student support specialist, and this has been a really effective tool to get ahead of possible behavior problems due to some trauma that kids may have had,” Gonzalez said. “We know that being at home was not ideal for every family.”

The final aim for the school this year was responsiveness. To promote responsiveness, the school will continue to create its equity data protocol, identify trends in individuals and groups of students and figure out how to approach any trends they find, Kiel said. According to Monday night’s presenters, school staff are trying to focus on productive struggle.

“This year we’ve really focused on the joys of mistake-making, how important mistakes are and how we can continue to learn from them,” said Danielle Nystrom, a fifth grade special education teacher.

While this year has provided academic challenges like no other, staff are trying to help kids work through their mistakes and guide students if and when they get stuck. Nystrom encourages her students to not be afraid to make mistakes, because she will be there to guide them on the process so they can start to become more independent learners.

Staff has also done some learning this year using data driven programs to meet students where they are at. These types of technology allows teachers to make the most of students’ independent time while the teachers are busy working with small groups.

Owatonna City Council approves roundabout for 26th Street

After tabling a decision about a roundabout at the intersection of 26th Street and State Avenue last month – with councilors requesting additional information on cost difference between a rotary traffic island and permanent traffic lights – the project has been given the go-ahead.

The Owatonna City Council approved the $2 million roundabout project in a 5-2 vote March 2. The project involves replacing the temporary traffic lights that Kyle Skov, the city’s engineer and public works director, described as a maintenance migraine. Councilors Doug Voss and Jeff Okerberg voted against the project.

“We have had to put in a lot of maintenance and the lights have a lot of downtime,” Skov said during the first discussion of the project in February. “Wires have been pulled down by trucks and the wind has knocked the lights out of service. We are constantly having to put up a four-way stop there. Hindsight is what it is, but they were installed temporary from the beginning.”

According to Skov, the city pays 25% toward certain items at the intersection that runs along County State Aid Highway 45 (State Avenue) and CSAH 34 (26th Street). The project is a joint cooperative agreement with Steele County and the project will be funded by a combination of county funds, CSAH funds and an estimated $466,720 from the city.

The project came from a 2015 county CSAH 35 Traffic and Infrastructure Improvement Needs Study that was completed to identify needs along the corridor and recommend immediate, short-term and long-range improvements. At the time, the intersection in question was controlled with an all-way stop, but traffic growth was expected to cause the intersection to fail operationally. Due to the close proximity to the railroad, however, discussions about a potential railroad overpass needed to be evaluated prior to a permanent decision on the intersection. In the meantime, it was decided to install temporary signals in 2016 with the expectation that if a railroad overpass was not explored further that a permanent solution such as roundabout could be built.

As directed by the council, Skov explained that the installation of permanent traffic signals would cost roughly $250,000 to $350,000 plus ongoing electrical cost and maintenance. A traffic signal is expected to have a life span of 30-40 years, but additional lanes and signal changes would likely be required as traffic increases during that timeframe, according to Skov.

“Permanent traffic signals would not address the safety issues experienced at this intersection,” Skov said as he again recommended the council approve the more expensive roundabout earlier this month. According to a traffic study, the intersection has experienced 3.8 crashes per year with a crash rate of 1.15 crashes per million entering vehicles (MEV) since the temporary signal system was installed. This is above the state average crash rate of 0.74 crashes/MEV for county signalized intersections. In presentation information for the council, county officials wrote that the skewed geometry of the approaches and the curved roadway through the intersection are likely factors in the high crash rate.

During the council meeting, Voss said he was uncomfortable with the timing of the project because of development coming to the area in housing and a new Owatonna High School. Okerberg said the public has been vocal about not being in favor of a roundabout in this location, specifically because it is just down the street from another roundabout at the 26th Street and North Cedar Avenue intersection. Councilor Kevin Raney said that while he understands roundabouts are typically safer, he is not sure he believes it would be in this specific location, to which Councilor Brent Svenby disagreed.

“We need to keep in mind that this is the first step in a series of projects to make improvements in that area,” Svenby said. “We may be looking 40 years out, but it’s still the first step in improving public safety.”

When asked about the potential timeline for the rest of the corridor updates – which could potentially bring another three roundabouts including two on the Interstate 35 ramps – Skov said it could range from five to 20 years before those projects are complete. Skov added that it will largely depend on when funding becomes available.

The tentative schedule for the project has construction slated to begin as early as this summer.