'We just have to hang in there': Holidays means more relying on food shelves to keep families fed

Ten months into pandemic, the need for food aid isn’t slowing down anytime soon

Food Shelf Thanksgiving
Sarah Beiswanger, 50, of Mankato helps her son, Charan Beiswanger, 18, a senior of Mankato East High School, with distance learning. The Beiswangers depend on the ECHO Food Shelf in the city to help feed the family. With kids being home for distance learning, the expenses for groceries are higher, which means the family relies on the food shelf even more. Especially during the holiday season.
Courtesy of Sarah Beiswanger

Sarah Beiswanger is a mother of six, and after her family unexpectedly grew several years ago after adopting and welcoming new children into the household, the 50-year-old Mankato woman worried about how exactly they were going to keep their bellies full. 

“All of a sudden, your family doubles in size but your income doesn’t double,” Beiswanger said. “So we had the conversation of ‘OK we need to feed everybody, we need to clothe everybody. We need to do X, Y, and Z for everybody. Our income didn’t double, but we have double the kids.”

The family ended up going to one place they never thought they would use—a food shelf. She admits to feeling “embarrassed and mortified” about visiting the first time. That was  eight years ago. Now the Beiswangers continue to use it to help keep food costs low. Sarah says it was one decision they never regretted. 

It’s especially stressful during the holidays, and more so now with most kids home for distance learning. So more food is being eaten and utilities are increasing during the winter. The Beiswangers depended on schools to feed their children during the year and are now trying to take each day as it comes. 

“It’s just, we didn’t need it,” Beiswanger said. “But then all of a sudden, you have all these kids and you’re like, we got to figure out how to get them shoes and pants and shirts and I mean, when our kids, we adopted them, they were sharing four pairs of pants. So all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Dang, OK...we got to figure this out.’ So, I had to get over my own issue with being embarrassed about going there and just know that it’s OK.”

The ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato provided a lifeline for the Beiswangers. Recently  the entire household (except for one teen) tested positive for COVID-19. They were unable to get their groceries for two weeks. It also meant that both Beiswanger and her husband, Robert were out of work during that time. 

ECHO Food Shelf 2
Volunteers prepare carts of food at the ECHO Food Shelf for clients. The food shelf is preparing about 1,000 Thanksgiving baskets for families this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Deisy De Leon Esqueda

“I started getting texts from some of the older volunteers, they’re checking in with me daily while we were at home in quarantine, ‘are you guys OK? How are things going?’” Beiswanger said. “ECHO delivered groceries to our house during the two weeks we were in quarantine. Normally I go down and get them, but they brought them to our doorstep.”

According to Second Harvest Heartland, since the start of the pandemic, an additional 275,000 Minnesotans, including 112,000 children, are facing food insecurity.

Being food insecure means not having sufficient funds or resources like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy enough food to feed everyone in a household. 

Anti-hunger advocates warned that more people will be depending on emergency food services because of COVID-19, particularly aging seniors specifically.  The holidays, they say, brings an uptick in local food shelf visits. A survey from Blue Cross Blue Shield in Spring 2020 found that 1 in 3 Minnesotans worried about being able to afford groceries and healthy food. 

This will most likely increase now that millions continue to file for unemployment and their enhanced unemployment benefits are going away.  Despite the federal government working on another stimulus package, it’s unknown whether it’ll be passed before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

There are also increasing  possible evictions as people run out of funds. Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole said that because of this, food shelves are expecting  a surge in visitors. 

“We’re in the hunger fight of our lives,” she said. “That means families are watering down milk to stretch a gallon. That means parents are skipping meals so their kids can have more, that means kids are showing up to school, whether it’d be online or in person or some combination, they’re showing up hungry.”

There were also other side-effects from the pandemic, food shelves saw a decrease in the number of volunteers, who are often older , while seeing an increase in the number of clients visiting. 

ECHO Food Shelf 3
Volunteers at the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato help assemble carts of groceries for clients to pick up as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Deisy De Leon Esqueda

ECHO Food Shelf manager Deisy De Leon Esqueda said that because a large portion of their volunteers were older, they experienced a shortage because many stayed home to avoid risk of exposure to COVID-19. ECHO had around 130 to 160 volunteers before the pandemic, and now, “very few of the volunteers have stayed behind.”

“They didn’t feel comfortable just being down here and we understood,” De Leon Esqueda said. “It’s scary. I remember when the pandemic first hit, it was really scary coming to work because you didn’t know if you’re gonna go home and get one of your family members sick.”

To avoid exposure to COVID-19, food shelves innovated.  Some retrofitted ice houses and trucks to help distribute groceries mobily, and others including the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, resorted to online ordering so that clients can make contactless pick-up.

This Thanksgiving, ECHO Food Shelf is handing out baskets for households on top of their usual groceries. The food shelf is anticipating about 1,000 households that ordered baskets ahead of the holiday, with each basket containing a choice of turkey or ham, potatoes, squash, cranberries and green beans.  

Colleen Moriarty is the executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a nonprofit that supports about 380 food shelves in the state. She said that after the 2008 recession, it took families about 18 to 22 months on average to get back on their feet. She anticipates that once a COVID vaccine is introduced, there will be a similar delay in getting back to the way things were. 

“It’s going to take a while for people to regain stability,” Moriarty said. “The community is going to have to be there for the long haul, and so I just want people to be patient. I know it’s hard. It’s frustrating. It’s like, the whole thing about COVID is so frustrating. But, we just have to hang in there.”

Hannah Yang is the newest MPR News reporter who’s diving deep into coverage on food insecurity and food access in southwest Minnesota and beyond. Contact Hannah at hyang@mpr.org or Twitter @HannahMYang to let her know of your experiences.

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