On March 15, as Minnesota ramped up vaccination distribution and continued to monitor new strains of the SARS-COV2 coronavirus, Gov. Tim Walz signed Executive Order 21-12 to extend the peacetime emergency in Minnesota.
What effect has the extended emergency response had upon food assistance programs in Aitkin County? Government and non-government organizations have spent the past year ramping up to meet anticipated needs for food assistance. The Age contacted some of those on the front lines of nutrition assistance to find out whether the need has declined since restrictions on schools, restaurants and other businesses were relaxed earlier this spring.
LOAVES AND FISHES MINNESOTA
Jason Todd, Loaves and Fishes coordinator for Aitkin County, said last week that the numbers of people needing food assistance has remained about the same in the free lunch program they sponsor in Palisade.
“Angels of McGregor and other individuals are continuing to pick up 12 meals apiece to distribute to others. The total of lunches prepared for Palisade continues to be around 100 per week,” Todd said.
The Aitkin Loaves and Fishes site at First Lutheran Church has been patronized a little less than it was at the height of COVID-19 in Aitkin; 125 lunches now, compared to 180 earlier in the pandemic. Tuesday’s free lunch at First Lutheran is steady at about 60-70 meals; the meals are still take out only at First Lutheran.
Loaves and Fishes has a commissary kitchen in the metro area now, which makes it easier for the site coordinators who now only have to heat up the proteins for the meals.
“We still have the same core group of volunteers, but instead of serving, they are making cookies and bars. The organizations are considering how it would work to have dine-in, but with lower occupancy rates being maintained (and lower than their typical number of diners) it doesn’t look like dining in will return any time soon,” Todd said.
USDA FARMERS TO FAMILIES PROGRAM
A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesperson said this week that The Farmers to Families Food Box Program has delivered more than 1.3 million food boxes for Americans in need in Minnesota, including more than 3,700 in Aitkin County.
Under the program, contracted vendors determine the nonprofit organizations they will partner with to distribute food to individuals.
USDA is currently assessing the program. This particular food box effort served some communities well, but has faced significant challenges in others. As part of its assessment, the USDA conducted extensive listening sessions on this new food purchase program to hear from distributors, nonprofits and communities and learn what does and does not work. The contact from USDA said the agency is currently evaluating the feedback received.
As USDA and the federal government continue to expand other forms of help and assistance to producers and consumers, USDA will use its federal nutrition safety net to more equitably and efficiently address food insecurity as well as to create greater access to nutritious food.
AITKIN COUNTY HHS
Aitkin County Public Health Supervisor Erin Melz said recently that, “As part of the American Rescue Plan Act signed March 11, women and children participating in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program will see a temporary increase to their Cash Value Benefit for fruit and vegetable purchases. The value of this voucher will increase from what is currently $9-$11 to $35 per month, from June 6-Sept. 30.”
Aitkin County HHS Financial Assistance Supervisor Jessi Goble said that there have been federal food programs created to assist families throughout the pandemic. Some programs that offer additional assistance are:
EMERGENCY FOOD SUPPORT (E-SNAP)
This is a program that increases the monthly SNAP benefit to the maximum allotment per month regardless of the income and expenses in the household. For example, a household with one person that may normally receive $16 per month in SNAP is receiving the maximum benefit allotment for a household size of one which is $204 a month with E-SNAP. Clearly, this increase is a huge help to those who are eligible for SNAP each month. This program can continue only if the federal Public Health Emergency and the state of Minnesota Peacetime Emergency are both in place. The program is also approved month by month by USDA.
INCREASE IN SNAP BENEFITS
A maximum increase of 15% in SNAP benefits for all SNAP-eligible households was approved through the Consolidated Appropriations Act to go into effect from Jan. 1-June 30, 2021. Using the example above, the normal maximum benefit for a household of one is $204 but this has been increased to $234 a month. The end date of this has now been extended to Sept. 30.
PANDEMIC EBT (P-EBT)
This program was created to help families that had children in K-12 school who are missing their free and reduced school meals at school with additional food resources.
The program is administered by the Department of Human Services working with the Minnesota Department of Education. The program was initially approved for the months of March- May 2020 but has since been approved by the USDA for the 2020-2021 school year. Families must qualify for free or reduced meals at school and meet a version of distance or hybrid learning to qualify.
Additional information can be found on the P-EBT web page at https://mn.gov/dhs/p-ebt/.
If eligible, each child could receive up to $130 in additional SNAP benefits per month. DHS asks that families be sure to have their contact information updated with the schools and to apply for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.
Goble thinks it is unlikely there has been any reduction in need for food program participation due to the re-opening of schools and restaurants.
SNAP benefits issued by Aitkin County increased from $108,167 in February 2020 to $231,144 in February 2021, for example. Large increases in benefits were also seen in the January and December year-to-year comparisons.
“The SNAP is intended to supplement a food budget for households under an income limit for their size. Some families may benefit from the free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs at the schools which help those SNAP benefits stretch further,” she said.
Aitkin County CARE was contacted but did not respond prior to going to print.