Minnesota food shelves brace for government shutdown

Two boxes are filled with food items as they move down a conveyor belt.
Volunteers pack boxes with non-perishable food along a finely tuned production line at Second Harvest Heartland's headquarters in Brooklyn Park, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Food shelves in Minnesota and around the country are bracing for a possible federal government shutdown, especially one that could last more than a few weeks.

One of the nation’s largest food banks is Second Harvest Heartland in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Its CEO, Allison O’Toole, said the hunger relief network is already struggling to meet historic demand for its services and expecting to help even more people if the federal government shuts down.

“You know, we’re talking about moms and babies and little kids and moms to be,” O’Toole said of the WIC program that could run out of funding in a prolonged shutdown. “This benefit provides fruits and veggies and peanut butter and cereal formula, the basic staples we need to help families thrive.”

O’Toole said food banks, which have been asking for more help since the pandemic, will have to increase their outreach efforts to attract volunteers and keep shelves stocked with food.

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“It is really going to be hard,” said O’Toole, who added meeting the needs of food insecure people will take a community effort. “If you have time to volunteer at a food shelter at Second Harvest Heartland, we welcome you. If you have the financial resources to give a donation, we certainly welcome that too to your local food shelf or Second Harvest. Everyone can help. I think food shelves would also welcome food donations.”

On the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Executive Director of the Two Harbors Area Food Shelf, Kelsey Dooley, said she’s waiting to see what will happen in a shutdown.

“I don’t know how much specifically we will be affected by the shutdown,” Dooley said.  “I have heard from some of our clients that they’re worried about it.”

The Two Harbors Area food shelf serves about 200 families, and Dooley said demand has been rising since pandemic aid to individuals began shrinking.

“It's up about at least 70 percent over the same time period last year,” said Dooley. 

She also said her operating costs have nearly doubled because of the price of food.

“That’s been a big thing that we’re having to compensate for, kind of on the fly and trying to make ends meet as we go along here and keep up with the ever-increasing demand,” Dooley said.

Gov. Tim Walz said his administration will do what it can to help meet increased demand for food in the event of a shutdown. He said his staff is looking at nutrition programs, long term care and other areas that receive federal funding.

In Duluth, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank serves about 40 smaller food shelves. Ashley Hall, who works there, said facing the shutdown is nerve-wracking.

“I am by nature an optimistic person,” Hall said. “But this is not a situation I think we can take lightly or be naïve.”

Hall, who used to run a food shelf in International Falls, Minn., said people in her part of the state have a long history of coming together to meet challenges like those a shutdown would present.

“All the counties in northern Minnesota are so great at supporting one another that when this happens, they start supporting monetarily, people come out and volunteer a little bit more than they typically do. It brings people together,” Hall said. “So I feel like that is a little bit of hope that all of us have, that if this happens, people will step up like they have in the past.”