It can be difficult for food banks to reach people out in the hinterlands even in the best of times, but during a pandemic these difficulties are compounded and magnified when food banks are needed most.
That was one takeaway from a conference call hosted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and representatives of Greater Minnesota food banks — most prominently, the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank. In her opening remarks, Klobuchar noted that “democracy carries on” after the Capitol insurrection of Wednesday, Jan. 6, and also pointed to billions in imminent government aid in the form of increased grants, more rental assistance, boosted SNAP benefits, another round of stimulus checks, increased Meals on Wheels funding, and more, that should help alleviate pressures families are facing.
“It's not enough, but it's an important thing to do right now — protecting people who are at risk of losing their home,” Klobuchar said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel with what we're going to see, but I know in the meantime, as we're in the tunnel, we have to keep people fed.”
While they waited for the senator to join the call Tuesday, Jan. 12, managers and volunteers — many of them sporting decades of experience — talked about the staggering level of need, volunteer shortages, and technological deficiencies that are hampering rural food banks as they work through the darkest period in modern American history. Families are struggling as they never have since the Great Depression and food banks — often staffed by a dwindling, elderly volunteer base — aren’t equipped to handle the load during a raging pandemic.
As such, said Sue Estee, the executive director of the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank, government aid is crucial at this time, because there were growing fears that rural families would be pushed beyond their means. This sentiment was echoed by Estee’s contemporaries, Deb Girard of the Milaca Area Food Pantry, Ashley Hall of the International Falls Hunger Coalition, Robin Wilson of the Walker Area Food Shelf, as well as Tim Moore and Rick Paine of the Lakes Area Food Shelf.
“We were really afraid this year before the second stimulus that we would have what we were calling the ‘commodity cliff,’ because we have distributed so many commodities over the last two years,” Estee said. “But, now, with the new appropriation, we should be pretty good this year. Let's keep in mind that the pandemic isn't going to be over in a couple of months and people are going to need help for a long time.”
Vulnerable populations identified by these nonprofit workers include low-income families and the elderly, but they said they were now seeing small business owners and middle-class individuals stopping by, on a regular basis, because they’re running out of options.
“It's pretty humbling to see people that never thought they would be coming to the food bank,” Girard said. “They are embarrassed. We also have people that are scared. We have a lot of mental health issues that follow along with it.”
Participants in the conference call spoke on a common theme that they were working to address and hoped federal authorities could assist — keeping rural folks from falling through the cracks. It’s more difficult to ensure people are getting what they need in thinly populated expanses of the state, Girard said, and this issue is compounded by contributing factors like a lack of internet access, social isolation, mental illness, drug use, as well as the concern that volunteers — who are primarily elderly church-goers — are putting themselves at risk of infection if they take assist their local food pantries.
“We have struggled,” Girard said. “This entire pandemic, we’ve been short on volunteers. People are afraid because of how many people you come in contact with in one day, and
a majority of our volunteers are 68 to 70 years old. We want every one of those volunteers and finding younger volunteers is very difficult.”