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.