In recent years, food costs have increased at an alarming rate. According to the US Department of Agriculture, prices for food at home rose 11.4% in 2022, and that was on top of the 3.5% increases seen in 2020 and 2021. 2022’s increase was the largest annual increase in food prices since the 1980s.
Inflation isn’t the only culprit to blame for spikes in food prices. Unpredictable events, such as the Ukrainian conflict that drove up the price of grains, can have monumental impacts as well. Droughts across the nation certainly didn’t help matters, either.
Minnesotans are feeling the squeeze, as well. This can mean altering shopping habits, eliminating items seen as “non-essential” goods, or making substitutions in the name of staying within a budget.
Pairing the rising food costs with the ballooning costs of child care, utilities, and medical care, it’s easy to see why visits to food shelves not only across the nation but right here in Stevens County, have increased.
The Stevens County Food Shelf, located in Morris, is a resource that can help with food insecurity.
Coordinator Brenda Boever shared that many clients who use the food shelf typically come about once per month, but that can change depending on family size, income, or food needs. Board member Doug Ehlers said that the shelf is open every day with a different set of volunteers. At the July 18 Stevens County Commissioners meeting, Boever told the board that the food shelf has increased its hours to accommodate the rising usage.
Food that leaves the shelf is weighed for reporting purposes, and they also try to keep track of the demographics, such as age groups and family size.
Ehlers says that this area has been extremely good as far as donations of both goods and cash. The University of Minnesota Morris, local schools, Stevens Community Medical Center, and local churches, just to name a few, have been a prime example of Stevens County organizations banding together to raise funds and donate goods, he says. This summer, the St. John’s/Kongsvinger parish raised over $1,500 during their annual block party in Donnelly to donate to the food shelf.
Having great donations means that space is extremely important. Once the food shelf receives donations, then comes the challenge to inventory, sort, and store each item. Storage of perishable items has created obstacles in the past. Boever has used her connections at UMN Morris to utilize freezer space on campus when in a pinch, she says. There were other times that different community organizations have helped to store bulk items, as well.
Recently, the food shelf was able to install a large walk-in freezer that helped solve this problem.
Now, when a sale or opportunity comes to stock up on perishable items, the food shelf is able to take hold of that opportunity. “We are very fortunate to have that resource,” says Boever, “With the uptick in the number of people using the food shelf, we have to be able to store enough food to last through the month, since we only get deliveries once per month.”
Ehlers says that the freezer also helps with the organization of food items, and being able to find them quickly instead of having to search through multiple smaller freezers.
The freezer was totally funded by donation, and it is a little bit unusual for a small food shelf such as Stevens County to have a walk-in freezer like the one they have, but, as Boever put it, they are very fortunate to have a forward-thinking board, as well as being able to use resources such as business knowledge of board members to be able to find good deals on freezers.
Not only is the food shelf a resource for food items, but also for personal items such as body washes, shampoos, and toothpaste. “Those items fly off the shelf,” Boever said, “and part of that is because SNAP and EBT benefits can’t be used for those items.”
“Brenda does a good job of working with the dollar stores in town,” Ehlers said of using local resources to stock the shelves with personal items. “They are so fantastic out there,” Boever says of our local dollar stores.
Another way the Stevens County Food Shelf is working to become more accessible is through a partnership with the Morris Transit. If a client needs a ride to the food shelf, all they need to do is call the Morris Transit and say they need a ride to the food shelf. At the end of the month, Morris Transit will send a bill for the rides to the food shelf. “We try to create more opportunities for our clients to visit,” says Boever. People have also called ahead so that when the transit drops them off, the shelf has packed up the food and is able to get the client back on their way right away so that the bus isn’t waiting.
Circumstances for needing to use the food shelf are ever-changing, says Ehlers. Some people spend all they have making the move to come and live and work here, so using the food shelf to bridge the gap between the move and a first paycheck is completely normal. He adds that many local employer’s human resources departments have shared with him that they tell their new employees about the food shelf.
“Everyone in the community is welcome,” says Boever, “There are no questions asked. We don’t ask for documentation other than addresses and how many people are in their family. We just try to be as open and welcoming as possible.”
The food shelf is funded by private donors and grants. If people are willing to donate to the food shelf, Boever and Ehlers say to donate what you feel is appropriate for your situation. “We’ll take anything from $1 up to whatever you want to do,” says Ehlers, and all of that money goes to buying food or supplies. Donations of cash, food, personal items, and volunteer work are accepted.
“Our volunteer team is pretty solid, but we could always use people to substitute or fill in,” says Boever, “Our volunteers are great, and they are all really dedicated. They all have that generous spirit.”