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State's second-largest food shelf has record-breaking month

"Just because someone isn’t on the corner holding a sign saying ‘I’m hungry’ doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing food insecurity," explains Virginia Merritt

ROCHESTER, Minn — KARE 11 Sunrise just launched a Summer Meals for Kids initiative in partnership with Second Harvest Heartland because once school is out, the need for food only grows. 

In March of this year, Governor Tim Walz signed the "Free School Meals" bill into law, so starting this coming school year breakfast and lunch will be free for all Minnesota students. 

Before that bill was signed, there was a controversial moment during debate about the legislation from Republican Senator Steve Drazkowski, who represents District 20 in the southeastern part of Minnesota.

"I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry," Sen. Drazkowski said on the Senate floor. "Yet today, I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that says they don't have access to enough food to eat." 

It was his rhetoric that made us want to do a little more research and shine a light on the food insecurities in southeastern Minnesota because they exist more now than ever. 

In Sen. Drazkowski's district, many kids fall below the federal poverty line.

Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health show more than 10% in Winona County, 8.5% in Wabasha County and 13.3 % in Goodhue County.

"Just because someone isn't on the corner holding a sign saying 'I'm hungry' doesn't mean they aren't experiencing food insecurity," said Virginia Merritt, the Executive Director for Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, Minnesota.

The Channel One Regional Food Bank currently serves 14 counties in southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin through a network of 167 food shelves, pantries and programs. 

"The need really started spiking about a year ago when grocery prices really started rising," said Merritt. "We saw a direct increase in the amount of people who needed extra food from us."

Merritt said this past March was the busiest month in the food bank's history, which has been around since 1980.

"The families that come into our food shelves are stressed out," said Merritt.  "People who have never had to ask for help before are having to come ask for help because they just can't afford the 11% increase in groceries. People's wages did not immediately go up in proportion to increased grocery prices."

With incredibly high grocery prices and many pandemic programs ending, like the extra SNAP benefits also known as food stamps, Merritt said families are struggling to make ends meet.

"Some households saw a decrease of $250 a month in groceries and so when that federal emergency ended, that emergency SNAP ended, which means people had less money to buy food at the same time all-time high grocery prices," said Merritt. 

The Channel One Food Shelf saw a 30% increase in visits in 2022 compared to 2021.

In the first quarter of this year, families visiting the food shelf increased another 15%.

  • QTR 1 – 2021: 11,590 food shelf visits
  • QTR 1 – 2022: 15,030 food shelf visits
  • QTR 1 – 2023: 17,324 food shelf visits
Credit: KARE 11
Visits to Rochester-area food bank on the rise

"We hear all the time that people avoided coming in to Channel One until they are watering down the milk, until mom wasn't eating lunch because they didn't ask for help," said Merritt. "They wanted to be able to support their families but we want people to come here before they are at that desperation point. It's important that people know that the need is out there and that food insecurity is often unseen or silent."

KARE 11 reached out to Sen. Drazkowski and his office several times and received the following statement through the Republican Party in March:

"Minnesota already has numerous resources to help kids and families get food on their tables and in their lunch boxes. Volunteers and non-profits are already stepping up at hundreds of food shelves around our state to meet the needs of their own communities.

We live in a time in history where we have the safest, cheapest, and most abundant food supply in the history of the world. The number of government programs already in place to make certain that kids and adults have food in our state is many. Every kid in school that wants breakfast or lunch gets it. Currently that means that 40% of the population of kids who qualify for Medicaid, and whose families are up to 200% of federal poverty guidelines, gets school breakfast and lunch. Every family that qualifies for the generous taxpayer-funded food-bearing EBT cards gets them. These are just some of the reasons that kids are not going hungry.

In the aftermath of the Minnesota Department of Education squandering up to $500 million in the Feeding our Future fraud scandal, Minnesota Democrats now want to give the same agency an additional $425 million to pay for the school lunches of those kids whose families are already paying for them. This is nothing more than their socialist effort to make Minnesotans dependent upon government. Minnesota’s socialist party doesn’t want our citizens to aspire to personal responsibility for themselves or their families. They want them all enrolled in government."

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