March food drives to pad lakes area shelf offerings
Local food shelves expect needs to increase even more with SNAP funding drop to pre-COVID-19 numbers
March food drives will serve a vital role to bolster lakes area food shelves as many patrons will lose extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds approved at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Emergency SNAP (E-SNAP) was first approved in March 2020 to combat the additional financial stress many faced during COVID-19 closures and the economic downturn.
With the prices of food, with inflation and people getting less money on their SNAP benefits, I think we're going to get quite a hefty increase in people coming to the food shelves.
Those who have been receiving the additional SNAP payments will see those added benefits end with their March payment. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates benefits will be reduced at least $95 a month for every recipient, with some receiving $250 less in SNAP benefits per month.
Doris Mezzenga, director of the Crosslake Food Shelf, said as much as a quarter of her clients use SNAP benefits and may see a decrease in what they have been receiving.
"With the prices of food, with inflation and people getting less money on their SNAP benefits, I think we're going to get quite a hefty increase in people coming to the food shelves," Mezzenga said.
"We're already kind of seeing it. We had a giveaway today, actually. And we had four new families,” she said. “So each time we're open, we'll get three or four new families."
Most families that come to the food shelf struggle, daily, with decisions such as, ‘Do I pay my rent, or do I buy groceries?’ ‘Do I get my tooth fixed, buy my child boots, or buy groceries?’
LuAnne Gravelle, of the Pine River Area Food Shelf, expects the reduction of SNAP benefits to increase need among her clients as well.
"I can't speak to exactly what's going to happen," Gravelle said. "But I would imagine the loss of the extra SNAP benefits is going to create some hardship for some families. We've had it in place for such a long period of time, and the rising costs of food and gas and all of those items hasn't gone down."
It’s the same story for the Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes.
“The halt to the E-SNAP program will have a dramatic effect on our friends and neighbors,” Kathy Adams, Lakes Area Food Shelf director, said in an email. “Most families that come to the food shelf struggle, daily, with decisions such as, ‘Do I pay my rent, or do I buy groceries?’ ‘Do I get my tooth fixed, buy my child boots, or buy groceries?’”
A reduction in SNAP benefits — along with inflation and high food costs — only makes those decisions harder, Adams said.
For families struggling to find enough money to cover household expenses, the end of E-SNAP benefits amounts to a huge loss to monthly food budgets, she said, as well as increased stress and emotional turmoil.
“We already see an increased desperation expressed as friends and neighbors share their hardships with our staff and volunteers as they shop for food,” she said. “Many express hopelessness, fear, and anxiety.”
Needs have increased
Even while E-SNAP was available, area food shelves have experienced significantly larger distributions.
We've had more seniors this year than ever. A lot of these seniors live on their Social Security. That's all they have.
In 2022, the Pine River Area Food Shelf distributed 80,412 pounds of food to 3,010 clients, an average of 250 clients per month.
"I looked at January and February's numbers from 2022 to 2023," said Gravelle. "Our numbers for individuals that we have served in those two months for 2023 has doubled from 2022."
That includes 45 new households since January.
In Crosslake, February 2023 alone saw a significant increase over 2022. The February distribution was over 15,000 pounds.
The shelf once had regional boundaries for where eligible families lived. That's no longer the case, which has contributed in part to the increase.
Mezzenga said they have helped families north to Hackensack and south to Brainerd.
"I would say roughly 5-6,000 more pounds of food that we're giving out than what we used to give out," Mezzenga said.
The Pequot Lakes food shelf had 4,657 visits in 2021, and that more than doubled to 10,978 visits in 2022.
In the first two months of 2023, the food shelf on Patriot Avenue near Grace United Methodist Church has recorded 2,167 visits — 1,043 in January and 1,124 in February.
And children are the second largest group of people that we're serving. Individual adults between the ages of 18 and 64 is our highest group of people.
That compares to 664 visits in January 2022 and 655 visits in February 2022.
The increase in recipients all over has been largely among seniors and young families.
"We've had more seniors this year than ever," Mezzenga said. "A lot of these seniors live on their Social Security. That's all they have. Social Security checks just don't go that far anymore, so they come to the food shelf, and they just need a little bit of help. They don't come all the time. They might come one month, and then maybe they won't come for another couple of months or so."
We serve homeless people living in their cars, in the woods, or wherever they can find a place to stay.
Young families have also proven to be the Pine River Area Food Shelf's primary new clientele.
"We're serving a lot of families," Gravelle said. "And children are the second largest group of people that we're serving. Individual adults between the ages of 18 and 64 is our highest group of people. Our seniors sort of vary per month."
The Lakes Area Food Shelf sees those same patrons, as well as homeless people.
“We serve homeless people living in their cars, in the woods, or wherever they can find a place to stay,” Adams said. “We serve parents who are working two and three jobs, but still can’t make ends meet. We serve grandparents who are now raising their grandchildren and children who have moved their parents into their homes to take care of them in their senior years.
“We serve professionals who are going through a major life change, such as divorce, loss of a spouse, a huge spike in rent, or a major health issue,” she said.
Fortunately, churches, businesses and individuals have long provided vital support to local food shelves.
"Donations are absolutely incredible," Mezzenga said. "Crosslake is such a generous area. RiverWood Bank just did a food drive for the month of February. They donated like 369 pounds of food and $550 cash donations. It was absolutely incredible."
Gravelle has seen the same support.
"We have a great community of business people and just local citizens who are so thoughtful with their gifts," Gravelle said. "Those dollars that we receive, we're just able to purchase so much more food. But we also love that people want to donate food."
The Pine River Area Food Shelf has been trying to increase awareness of the shelf's needs by promoting specific foods each month.
"We requested hearty soups, and then snacks like crackers and granola bars and stuff like that monthly," Gravelle said. "I'm trying to do something to just bring the awareness to people, ways that they could also help us throughout the year."
Food shelf campaigns
In addition to donations that tend to come on a regular basis, there are a number of March-specific drives in the area.
Pine River is holding a drive with a bonus. Boxes of cereal donated at Pine River-Backus School this month will be used to make a giant domino chain.
"We'll have the elementary kids and families donating healthy boxes of cereal to the school," Gravelle said. "And then some volunteers and I will go over to the school on March 15 and help get that all set up. We'll have one lucky person start the knockdown, and we're hoping that we can promote both healthy eating and then The Tiger Den and the food shelf will both benefit."
The Crosslake Food Shelf and Lakes Area Food Shelf in Pequot Lakes are both beneficiaries of yet another drive called the Lenten Challenge. The third year of the challenge started Feb. 22 and continues through Palm Sunday, April 2.
The Minnesota March FoodShare Campaign is our biggest fundraising and food raising event of the year, and we have great faith our community will continue to support us through the campaign.
During that time, Grace United Methodist Church in Pequot Lakes, Crosslake Presbyterian Church, St. Alice Catholic Church in Pequot Lakes, Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa, Crosslake Lutheran Church, St. Christopher's Catholic Church in Nisswa and Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Pequot Lakes will compete to collect the most food and finances to benefit the two shelves.
Adams said food purchase costs increased by 65% between 2021 and 2022.
“The Minnesota March FoodShare Campaign is our biggest fundraising and food raising event of the year, and we have great faith our community will continue to support us through the campaign,” she said.
On top of all the drives and special donations, Crow Wing County shelves are working together to ensure that if one has an abundance of something, they make those donations go further thanks to a new walk-in refrigerator and freezer at the Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen in Brainerd.
"When we pick up food from Costco or Target or wherever, if we have an excess, like if we just had a giveaway so we can't hold the food over for another two weeks, then we will take it over to the soup kitchen," Mezzenga said.
"We'll put it in the refrigerator or the freezer, let the other food shelves know that it's there, and they go and pick it up and they use it," she said. "It works absolutely perfect for us just to have a place to take the excess, where other people would have access to it."
Cash donations that we receive help us the most because we can just purchase larger quantities with the money.
While food shelves welcome the donation of food, through the assistance of Second Harvest Food Bank shelves are capable of getting far more food for far less money than individual donors. As a result, monetary donations are preferred.
"Cash donations that we receive help us the most because we can just purchase larger quantities with the money," Gravelle said.
There are some items food shelves can't typically get through Second Harvest, and those items are in high demand.
"Definitely hygiene products, laundry soap, dish soap, diapers," Mezzenga said. "When RiverWood did their food drive last month, somebody had donated diapers. And we have a lot of young families that come to the food shelf, and they always ask for diapers."
As with most people, eggs are included in the Pine River Area Shelf's list of wants.
"Eggs are one of the things we can get from Second Harvest, but not always," Gravelle said. "I have some local growers we're working with that we're purchasing eggs from. I'm willing to work with our local growers who might have eggs available that they want to sell.
"Paper products are huge, including toilet paper, paper towels, any of those kinds of things," she said. "We don't necessarily have a wide variety of cleaning supplies. We have laundry soap and dish soap for people to choose from. The larger size diapers like 4 or 5, 6 are also items that we would love donations of, or baby wipes, and things like that."
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.