The weekly community meals in Palisade and Aitkin last week featured chicken “street tacos” and staff dressed in Hawaiian shirts and leis.
Aitkin County Site Coordinator for Loaves and Fishes, Jason Todd, said the staff wanted to create a celebratory and light-hearted atmosphere to mitigate some of the real mental health impacts they are seeing because of the effects of isolation and economic stress due to COVID-19.
Loaves and Fishes Media and Communications Staffer Ryan Tibbitts and Director of Sites Matt Anderson also visited Aitkin County for the occasion.
Anderson provided some perspective on how the COVID-19 response has affected the meal program coordinated by Loaves and Fishes.
Todd reported that meals served in Palisade increased from 35-40 to 70 per day in the early days of COVID-19.
“Now we are serving between 110 and 120 meals each time we serve a meal in Palisade,” he said.
ANGELS of McGregor is picking up 50 meals per week that they deliver to individuals who are not able to leave their homes.
“Aitkin meal numbers have also increased,” said Anderson. “Where once we served 90-100 meals on Tuesdays at First Lutheran in Aitkin, now we are serving more than 160 at a sitting. On Thursdays, the usual 45-50 meals has turned into around 70 per week.”
Most of the meals are served to older people, but the offering of meals to go has brought in more families who want to take advantage of the opportunity but don’t want to bring their children out to eat.
Todd observed that when the community meals went from in-person social events to carry-out only, people were asking when they could go back to dining in. Now most people are settling in for the long haul, but clients who live alone are especially hard hit by the move to dining at home.
“Today everyone received a personal care pack as well as their food,” Todd said. “The toiletries were also donated by Loaves and Fishes.”
With regard to the sustainability of the food supply that enables the organization to continue feeding so many, Anderson pointed out that they are currently rescuing more food that would otherwise go to waste than they ever have. He doesn’t anticipate a problem with continuing to supply the meals.
“The way the corporate food world works is that there is planned excess food purchase,” he said. “There was a time when the amount of food waste was staggering, but we have partnerships in place with so many entities that we are now able to divert some of that to Loaves and Fishes and Second Harvest Food Bank and make sure it gets to people who are in need.
In the state of Minnesota, Loaves and Fishes provided 1.35 million meals in 2019, but has been able to ramp up to the extent that they predict in 2020 they will have served between 3 and 3.5 million meals. They operate 64 dining sites and a street outreach hub.
Changes due to COVID-19 initiatives put in place by the state have resulted in changes to the client base of the community meal programs. People who were living paycheck to paycheck prior to COVID-19 are now making use of these programs.
This has resulted in a change in perceptions about community meals as a resource.
“Many people who have never needed food assistance have only the dim, grainy black and white photos or videos of people lined up in soup kitchens during the Depression for reference. They are amazed when they see the balanced meals being served with fresh fruits and vegetables, plated up for both in-person meal service and carry-out containers.
“Gratitude is the most common response,” Anderson said. Comments I recall from recent diners include such things as, ‘I’m on a fixed, limited income, and this meal is keeping me afloat;’ ‘This resource is making it possible for me to keep making my house payment;’ and ‘This makes money available for me to buy my medication and still have healthy meals.’”