With inflation eating into family budgets, local food shelves have seen massive spikes in demand over the last several months. As the weather gets colder and elevated winter heating costs impact family budgets, demand for food assistance is likely to increase further.
Community Action Center Food Access Director Michael Pursell, who organizes the nonprofit organization’s food banks in Faribault and Northfield, reported that visits to CAC’s food shelves have more than doubled over the last year.
Pursell attributed that increase, in part, to increasing awareness of CAC’s food shelf in Faribault. While its Northfield program is well established and well known in the community, its food shelf in Faribault has only been in operation for about a year.
CAC expanded its services to Faribault after the closure of the Faribault Area Food Shelf left a gaping hole in the community’s safety net. For a brief time, the small food shelf run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society provided the only assistance of its kind in Faribault.
St. Vincent de Paul’s shelf, meanwhile, continues to serve residents, and the all-volunteer organization also provides clothing and essential household items at no cost at its Free Store. St. Vincent de Paul President Larry Muehlenbein said that demand is growing substantially.
“We’re seeing more people every week and every month,” he said.
Given that the city has a much lower median income and much higher rates of poverty than Northfield or even Owatonna, it’s hardly surprising that Faribault might see a disproportionate increase in need as lower-income families struggle to keep up with rising costs.
Flush with resources during the pandemic, CAC was able to offer unlimited visits to those in need. Limited resources have required the organization to now limit visits to once per week, but that’s still more generous than the pre-pandemic restriction of one visit per month.
Still, surging demand coupled with rising food prices have left food shelves struggling to keep their own costs under control. While local food shelves continue to benefit from generous donations and bulk purchasing power, Pursell said that finding the necessary food at affordable prices has become harder.
“It’s gotten significantly more difficult for food shelves and larger food banks to be able to source many different foods affordably,” he said. “Our purchasing power is getting pinched.”
Community Pathways of Steele County Executive Director Dom Korbel described the increase as “staggering.” One year ago, about 250 families would visit his organization’s foodbank each week, but now he’s averaging over 550.
Many of the families Community Pathways now serves haven’t utilized food assistance in the past and still don’t come as often as they could. Even though weekly visits to the foodshelf are allowed, Korbel says the average family only comes once every three weeks.
“Fuel prices and food costs have gone up so much that people just need a little extra help to make sure that their family has enough food,” he said.
In order to provide each family with the help they need, Community Pathways has worked hard to avoid restricting certain food items. However, it recently had to limit families to no more than one dozen eggs per week.
“It’s about $1,800 a week for us just to get one dozen to every family,” Korbel said. “Financially, we just could not afford to leave eggs as an unlimited item.”
St. Peter Area Food Shelf Manager Andie Kukacka said that his organization has had to place limits on milk and meat items, due to supply issues in addition to eggs. Despite that, Kukacka proudly noted that the Food Shelf has “never had to turn anybody away.”
Even with the increased challenges of sourcing food affordably as prices continue to rise, donating money remains the most efficient way to support the St. Peter Food Shelf and other local food shelves, though food donations certainly remain welcome as well.
“As an organization, we can get a lot more power out of purchasing food than if someone goes to the grocery store and buys things to donate,” Pursell noted.
Even so, Korbel is heartened to see many organizations and people organizing food drives — often unbeknownst to local food shelves. Just in the last week, Community Pathways was surprised with more than 1,500 pounds in donated food thanks to food drives at schools in Blooming Prairie and Owatonna.
“Across the community, companies just do it,” he said. “They don’t ask a lot from us; they just show up with a van of food.”
Korbel applauded such efforts and asked local residents to consider supporting their local food shelf this holiday season. By helping to take food insecurity off the menu, Korbel said that strong local food shelves can make a world of difference for your friends and neighbors.
“If you’re experiencing food insecurity, your ability to address any other challenge is close to impossible,” Korbel said. “Let’s take that off the list of worries for people.”