More, and more, people are beginning to use the Becker County Food Pantry, in Detroit Lakes, and The Bridge Community Pantry, in Perham, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall months.

During the beginning of the pandemic in the spring, the Becker County Food Pantry saw a decrease in traffic of about 40%, but those numbers have increased recently as more people have exhausted their government financial assistance, said Brad Carlson, director of the Becker County Food Pantry.

"If you were on food stamps, you got an extra $325 per child, and if you were on free and reduced lunches, you could get $325 per child," said Carlson. "At the end of July, that went to $100 per child . . . that's when the state ran out of money."

He said as the additional unemployment, food stamps and reduced school meals benefits expired, the need for the pantry increased. The pantry is now serving about 80% of what they did last year, but Carlson said he expects that to rise as more financial assistance programs are set to expire in December.

"It's starting to tick back upwards, and we're seeing a younger crowd, young adults trying to make ends meet," he said.

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Carlson also said both monetary and food donations have increased "dramatically" this year and the pantry had been providing more food than they normally would because they need to clear the storage space. He also said, in the spring, the government had been buying excess meat and produce around the country and selling it to the food shelves at a rate of $0.08 to $0.10 per pound, which increased their inventories.

"It wasn't going to the schools and it wasn't going to the restaurants," said Carlson, "so they were passing that onto us. So we've been giving out an awful lot of stuff."

At one point, he said, the food pantry needed a refrigerated tractor-trailer to store the extra food. The trailer was loaned, free of charge, to the food bank as long as they kept the truck full of diesel, which they did.

In order to become a recipient of the Becker County Food Pantry, a client needs to fill out a federal household yearly income form and they also ask for a proof of residency because they are only suppose to supply food to those living in Becker County.

The pantry will be closed on Thanksgiving so the all-volunteer staff can be with their families. However, Carlson said, he expected Tuesday's traffic before Thanksgiving to be one of the biggest food assistance days of the year.

The Becker County Food Pantry continually receives weekly donations of expired, or damaged, perishable items from Central Market, Walmart and KFC, which are greatly appreciated by the pantry, said Carlson.

The Bidge Community Pantry in Perham has seen an 8% increase in traffic this year, but, John Leikness, executive director of The Bridge, said much of that is due to the popularity of their mobile food pantry, which travels to more rural areas to serve residents a couple times per month.

"With the mobile, our growth has been in the range of 22% over last year," said Leikness. "So that contributed a good number toward that 8% growth (overall)."

The Bridge, like many other pantries, went to a drive-thru service for food recipients as part of their safety measures to protect volunteers and patrons from COVID-19.

"(Drive-by service) has been working quite well, although, people enjoyed the fact that they could come in and actually shop for what they really needed," said Leikness. "But given the need to protect, not only the clients, but our volunteers, we opted to go with the drive-by approach as well."

He said financial donations can go further than the food people drop-off because the pantry can purchase items they need instead of making due with what they have in-stock.

Leikness also said, since The Bridge is only open one day per week (Tuesday), he is willing to work with people during their off days to ensure they have enough food.

"If anybody has any problems during the off days, all you have to do is call and we will have something available for them regardless of the day," said Leikness. "Just keep us in your thoughts and if you feel that you could donate, that would be awesome as well, but we're here to take care of those who need an occasional helping hand."