Among the many concerns raised by the coronavirus crisis, food security is one that affects every community in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Even before the beginning of the pandemic, 1 in 11 homes in Wisconsin was food insecure, meaning that the residents might not have access to the food they need, according to Katie Bartko, University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension FoodWise Nutrition coordinator for Pierce, Polk, and St. Croix counties.

“COVID-19 is creating real challenges for food security, but our schools and food pantries are working diligently to ensure that kids and families have access to safe and healthy food,” Bartko said.

Across the river in Minnesota, Red Wing Public Schools Food Service personnel are providing meals now through the summer food program, which means that any child 18 and under can get free access to food regardless of eligibility.

Nearly 1 in 10 households in Minnesota experiences food insecurity with factors including low wages, lack of transportation and difficulty accessing benefits, according to the Department of Health. The state ranks seventh worst in the nation for the share of residents with access to healthful foods.

“You are definitely going to see an increase in food insecurity during a time of crisis,” Brent Lexvold, food service director for Red Wing schools. “The nice thing is that we, as a program, can guarantee that those families are getting that breakfast and lunch, so that instead of worrying about having to supply three meals a day, hopefully that is alleviating some of that pressure for those families that are being hit harder now.”

So far the program has been able to handle everyone who has shown up. In fact, on Friday, March 27, the high school kitchen produced 6,233 meals that went out to children in the community, according to Lexvold. That is meeting the current need, but if the crisis increases as expected, more help might be needed.

“I am in conversations with the food Shelf about what might happen and what things we could try to tackle together, “ Lexvold said. “As we get into this, there might be more of a community approach. I think there are a lot of people in the community that are very interested in donating or helping.”

The Red Wing Area Food Shelf has seen an increase in patrons, but expects even more in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis continues. Photo by Dee Bender
The Red Wing Area Food Shelf has seen an increase in patrons, but expects even more in the coming weeks as the coronavirus crisis continues. Photo by Dee Bender

While the coronavirus crisis is creating more demand for the services provided by food pantries, it is also creating new challenges for food programs.

“COVID-19 is disrupting staffing at food pantries, because many pantry volunteers are senior citizens at high risk of getting sick themselves,” Bartko said. “It is disrupting delivery models, which often involve clients coming into pantries and selecting food in a high-contact environment. And it is disrupting food sources, as supplies from food drives and retail donations are down.”

Dan Bender, board chair of the Red Wing Area Food Shelf, explained that food insecurity is often caused by sudden, unplanned expenses for a household. If a family is getting by, an emergency such as a sickness, car repair, furnace replacement or other problem may take the money that was allocated for food.

“Almost all the families that come to the Food Shelf are working families,” Bender said. “They are allowed to come once a month, but most of them do not come every month. About 65% come in only one, two, or three times per year.”

Even though the pandemic crisis has caused complete disruption for many families, Bender said they have not seen as big of an increase in Food Shelf use as he has expected.

“The last two weeks in March compared to the last two weeks in February, we were up 10%,” Bender said. “We thought we would be up 25%. We have had a good number of donations from the community, so that is helping us.”

Most of the food for the Red Wing Area Food Shelf comes from the Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester. Bender said Channel One has notified him that they may have to change the amount of food available, the types of food available, or both.

“This could be a double problem,” Bender said. “We may be getting less food, and as this crisis goes on, we may be having more people coming in.”

Bender said anyone who needs the Food Shelf should continue to come in. Anyone who wants to contribute can donate money or canned or non-perishable food.

“We are probably the luckiest food shelf in existence,” Bender said. “That’s because we are located in Red Wing. We have such a wonderfully giving community that we have been able to survive, and in fact, thrive, because of the community we are in. I am sure that no matter what happens, one way or another, we are going to continue to get by in pretty good shape.”

Financial contributions can be mailed to RW Area Food Shelf, 1755 Old W Main or given online at redwingfoodshelf@org. Food donations can be left at the back door.