Hunger in Minnesota: The numbers tell us to keep moving in the right direction

20 July 2023

Very few Minnesotans have been unaffected by the squeeze of food inflation over the past couple years. For many of us, it means forgoing more expensive items or making substitutions to stay within our budget.

For some of our neighbors, though, the cost of food raised higher hurdles, forcing them to choose between buying food and paying for necessities including child care, utilities, transportation, housing and medical care. Given those choices, it’s little surprise that visits to Minnesota food shelves rose in 2022 to 5.5 million, more than ever before.

My role as an associate dean at University of Minnesota Extension puts me, along with my colleagues, at the forefront of nutrition education, outreach and research. Last year, Extension worked with other Minnesota food access leaders to create and conduct a survey of food shelf shoppers and managers that has yielded some of the clearest insights ever gathered about hunger in Minnesota. Our work was in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Hunger Solutions, Super Shelf and the Foundation for Essential Needs.

More than 7,000 food shelf shoppers took the survey, representing a cross section of rural, suburban and urban experiences. What we learned gives us reasons for hope, as well as deepening concern. Each new layer of information revealed by data also raised questions. Many responses contradicted persistent myths about poverty and food insecurity and underscored the challenges rural areas face in providing a safety net. Consider:

Food insecurity is long-lasting among Minnesotans, with 34% reporting they’ve relied upon food shelves for more than two years and 64% have turned to them for a year or more. Why?
Nearly one in 10 said they relied on a food shelf for all of their food for at least six months preceding the survey. There is much about chronic food insecurity that we don’t know. What role do mental illnesses play? Do people turn to food shelves over other food sources because of language barriers? Are they fearful of seeking food assistance benefits because of immigration status?
Among survey respondents, 8% identified as LGBTQ. We need to keep elevating LGBTQ voices in conversations about food insecurity so that solutions don’t leave people out.
We need to be concerned about hunger among the elderly. Nearly four in 10 respondents reported at least one senior citizen in their household. This reinforced research by Hunger Solutions, which found nearly a 40% increase in food shelf shoppers ages 65 and older.

The survey also gave reason for Minnesotans to be hopeful. Far from the oft-repeated – and mean-spirited – mythology that’s grown around people in poverty, food shelf customers want to eat healthy. The most commonly sought items at food shelves are fresh vegetables and fruit, milk, proteins and items for meal preparation. That reinforces what we’ve seen when Extension educators teach nutrition information to limited income people, as we did with 94,509 people across the state last year.

Anecdotally, our experience with food shelves also shows us Minnesotans are a pay-it-forward people. Many who once turned to food shelves to keep hunger at bay return as volunteers and staff after there’s greater stability in their lives.

More cause for hope in the fight against hunger: In March, Gov. Tim Walz signed emergency measures providing a much needed $5.5 million for Minnesota food shelves. A political hot potato? Hardly. The measure passed unanimously in the Minnesota House and nearly so in the state Senate. That funding was an urgently needed addition to the $4.7 million already slated to help the state’s food shelves meet record demand. Pressure on families – and food shelves – hopefully will be alleviated by passage of new legislation providing breakfast and lunch for public school students.

It’s this kind of hybrid of prioritizing hunger and working toward long-term innovations that can help take down hurdles between all Minnesotans and food insecurity. Let’s keep the momentum going.

Patricia Olson, Ph.D., is associate dean at University of Minnesota Extension, where she leads the Department of Family, Health and Wellbeing. 

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