ST. PAUL — With the coronavirus pandemic maintaining its grip on Minnesotans’ daily lives for an eighth month, state officials say the need for nutrition assistance has been “astronomical” — and has potential to balloon further.

Since COVID-19 struck the state in the spring, it has claimed thousands of Minnesotans’ lives and many more livelihoods. Since March, the state Department of Employment and Economic development reports that more than 1 million Minnesotans have filed for unemployment since March, and the Department of Human Services says more than 400,000 have been using state and local nutrition benefits every month.

By comparison, unemployment rates were historically low in the state in 2019, and roughly 393,000 received nutrition assistance monthly, according to DEED and DHS, respectively.

In a Monday, Nov. 23, news release, DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said unemployment and under-employment, difficulty travelling to stores to get food, social isolation and unaffordable housing are all factors that make it more difficult for families to afford and access groceries. And now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “all of those problems are now amplified.”

“Our responsibility is to help hungry Minnesotans,” Harpstead said. “Right now, the need is astronomical and we only expect it to increase as the pandemic continues.”

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Jodi Harpstead, Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Human Services
Jodi Harpstead, Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Human Services

According to Monday’s release, access to nutrition assistance has been expanded through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and CARES Act federal aid. For instance, for the 267,000 school-age children who usually eat free or reduced-price school lunches but couldn’t while schools were closed, DHS expanded SNAP benefits.

DHS reports that it has issued $12 million in CARES Act funding to tribal governments, nonprofits and local governments to help feed and shelter Minnesotans in need. And for whatever SNAP doesn’t cover, DHS said food shelves and banks “help fill in the gaps” for families.

In July, when Gov. Tim Walz’s administration first announced that millions of Minnesota’s CARES Act dollars would be dedicated to hunger relief, Walz said that “no Minnesotan should go to bed hungry or be forced to learn on an empty stomach.”

"It makes it very difficult for families in the time of COVID to find any security, any sense of peace, when the world feels like it continues to spin out of control, especially if you don't know how you're going to feed your family," he said at the time.

Minnesotans in need of nutrition assistance can visit the DHS’s webpage at mn.gov/dhs/food-emergency/ or call the Food Helpline at 1-888-711-1151. And families who are looking into replacing their child’s school meals are recommended to contact their school.