As the pandemic drags into a new year, the economic fallout that has hit lo- income families across Rice County especially hard is showing no signs of subsiding.

Locally, the safety net supporting the least fortunate looked very different at the end of 2020 than at its beginning. In May, the Salvation Army announced that it would close its doors in Faribault and three other cities across greater Minnesota.

Prior to its closure, the Salvation Army had a wide reach in Faribault. The city has a large number of low-income families, many of whom recently immigrated to the U.S., and one in three Rice County children live in poverty. The Salvation Army’s reach extended beyond its ubiquitous efforts to provide clothing and other essentials at a discounted price. Thanks to a robust team of volunteers and donors, it was able to provide help with food and lodging as well.

Less than a month later, the Faribault Area Food Shelf also closed its doors, leaving the food insecure with just the small food shelf at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for support. With no end in sight to the COVID crisis, the closures came at a bleak time for the less fortunate.

Even before the Food Shelf closed, a group of local nonprofits led by the Northfield Community Action Center banded together to meet the skyrocketing need by establishing mobile food access sites at locations throughout the county.

Demand for the service only increased after the Food Shelf closed and over the summer, more than 1,000 unique families were served. The Community Action Center’s Program Director, Anika Rychner, said the upward trend in terms of need has only continued.

Initially, the program was funded through a CARES Act grant provided through Rice County. However, Rychner said that the funding has run out and the Initiative is now reliant on other grant funding.

In November alone, some 37,000 pounds of food were distributed by the Faribault Food Access Initiative. The Community Action Center’s Director, Scott Wopota, said that the organization is now serving three to four times the number of people it did previously.

“It’s an honor to serve such a growing need,” Wopota said. “It’s a humbling experience to be at a food distribution event when there’s 260 cars lined up.”

Once they’re able to do so safely, the Food Access Initiative will open its food distribution hub at 1400 Cannon Circle to the public. The CAC signed a lease agreement for the building in October, with plans to open a 30 by 100 foot distribution center as soon as it’s safe to do so.

United Way united

2020 was also the first full year that the Rice County United Way operated under one roof. Prior to mid-2019, Faribault and Northfield both had their own branches of the national nonprofit organization, but the Faribault branch was among the smallest in the state.

While final 2020 donation totals are still being tallied, Executive Director Penny Hillmann said that the United Way has been hurt by the general fall in charitable giving by a cash-strapped public, though it’s been able to make a strong case to donors who can give.

Unfortunately, Hillemann said that the local United Way had significantly less funding to provide this year than last. Nonetheless significant dollars were directed toward emergency assistance programming like the Food Access Initiative, at the behest of the local board of directors.

“It’s also heartwarming to see great local organizations doing everything they can to meet those needs,” she said. “ People are rolling up their sleeves and saying we’ve got to take action because children are going hungry.”

Wopata said that although he doesn’t know what the year ahead will bring, there’s cause for both optimism and trepidation. While expressing optimism about the stimulus package recently passed by the federal government, he said that the scale of the damage will be difficult to heal from.

“I’m really worried about the challenges our families are facing,” he said. “There’s a lot of trauma that happens when people are losing their jobs, their housing.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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