COVID-19 causes surge in food shelf visits among older Minnesotans

Some rural Minnesota counties saw triple-digit percentage increases in visits by people 65 and older

Volunteers are working on shelf-stable meal boxes for seniors.
Volunteers put together shelf-stable meal boxes for seniors at Swift County Prairie Five Community Action on Tuesday. As the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on the state, the number of older adults seeking food assistance swelled across Minnesota.
Courtesy of Swift County Prairie Five Community Action

Kathy Polzin doesn’t know what she’d do without the box she picks up every month from the food shelf at Prairie Five Community Action in Swift County, Minn. 

“When I do have it in my house, I know when I go to bed at night, I’ve got enough to eat,” she said.

A few years ago, a long illness and hospitalization left her with mountains of bills and significant debt. And all of a sudden, the 75-year-old home health aide said, she couldn’t afford to buy groceries.

“Instead, I’m working, but I don’t make enough because I get no sick time, no sick leave. So when I don’t work and I don’t see a client, I don’t get paid,” she said.

For three years now, she’s been a client at Prairie Five — and in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic bore down on the state, wreaking havoc on jobs and finances and certainty, she was joined by a swell of other seniors seeking food assistance statewide.

That movement been particularly pronounced in western Minnesota.

The state’s largest increases in food shelf use over the last year happened in the Twin Cities metro area. But in some rural places, there has been a more than fivefold increase in visits among people who are 65 or older.

“Senior visits are continuing to rise not just in the metro area, but you can see throughout the state that there were double-, sometimes triple-digit increases in seniors visiting food shelves in the state of Minnesota [in 2020],” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit that supports food shelves statewide.

“A lot of that, I think, had to do with the fact that during COVID, if you had a compromising medical condition, or you had transportation issues, or didn't feel comfortable leaving home or couldn't, that a food shelf was a very good avenue of response for healthy nutritious food.”

Last year, Minnesotans made 3.83 million visits to food shelves, according to Hunger Solutions data, compiled from reports from more than 80 food shelves statewide. More than 500,000 of those visits were made by Minnesotans 65 or older.

Prairie Five Community Action, where Polzin picks up her monthly boxes, runs food programs in five counties — Swift, Yellow Medicine, Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Chippewa — along the Minnesota River in the western part of the state. In 2019, Big Stone County’s food shelf recorded just under 300 visits from seniors. In 2020, that jumped to more than 1,500.

Prairie Five’s outreach director, Elizabeth Koehl, said she often heard from clients last year who didn’t want to ask for help, didn’t think they needed food assistance or worried that someone else in the community needed it more than they did.

They would tell her they didn’t want someone else to go hungry. She had to reassure them there was enough food for anyone who needed it. 

“With the pandemic, it’s been very hard and disproportionately affected our older population,” she said. “And I think it’s just really important, sometimes they do need that encouragement. I think it’s just really hard for the population to just come out and ask for help. And so I think as a community, we can all do better at really encouraging our seniors and looking out for them.”

And despite the increased demand — in some places, significantly increased — Moriarty said, statewide, Minnesota’s emergency food system and food shelves were well-stocked and able to meet the increased need.

“That really is our major concern, ‘Is there enough food for the response to be able to take place?’” she said. “Really, due to the hard work of the [food] banks and the community, there was enough food to respond to the need.”

For Polzin, the monthly commodity boxes — filled with canned soups, produce and hygiene products — have been a lifeline. They’re part of the federally funded Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides support to people who are at least 60 years old and whose income doesn’t exceed a certain threshold.

“Even though I get Social Security, and I get a little bit of a pension … the price of food does not pay attention to how much money a senior has to go buy something,” Polzin said. “They might need a piece of fruit here in town at our two great grocery stores — $1.99 a pound for pears — and those pears, a pound of them might be two or three, so that’s too expensive, even for me.”

She’s become something of an evangelist for the food shelf system.

She encourages others — neighbors, friends, people in her social circle — to consider seeking food help, if money is tight. She lets people know about available food assistance programs.

And when she picks up her commodity boxes each month in Benson, she packs a few more in her car, to drop off to neighbors who aren’t able to get theirs.

“We all have our own boat to oar,” she said. “But it’s easier to row when you have more than one.“


What does hunger and food insecurity look like in your community? What stories would you like to share about food access? Contact reporter Hannah Yang at hyang@mpr.org or follow her on Twitter at @HannahMYang to share your experience.


COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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