By Jen Jabas, director of the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties

Over the past few months, we have seen the impact of the coronavirus on our community.

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, businesses have closed and individuals and families have sheltered in place. Schools have offered digital learning for students and adults are working remotely. We have all adjusted to new practices in our personal and professional lives according to CDC and MDH guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As a result of these changes, many people in our community are faced with food insecurity.

According to the Feeding America network of food banks, the number of individuals and families that are either facing food insecurity or at risk of becoming food insecure has grown. The Feeding America network is responding to the crisis as it unfolds, while reporting increased demand for charitable food assistance. North County Food Bank is a member of the Feeding America Network of Food Banks serving 21 counties, including Douglas and Pope counties. United Way works with North Country Food Bank to purchase food to address hunger in our community through United Way food drops and the United Way Backpack Attack program.

In order to prevent food insecurity, United Way offers monthly food drops in both Pope and Douglas counties. Households facing food insecurity are able to register to attend the food drop in the county in which they live prior to each scheduled distribution date. There are no requirements or guidelines for individuals to qualify to receive food. Information is collected upon registration to better understand the demographics and geography of the need for food in our community. This helps us to ensure we are able to meet the needs and identify ways to provide support.

United Way food drops saw an increase in attendance of approximately 35 to 45% during the months of March and April when the stay-at-home order was announced in Minnesota. Although the numbers have decreased from the initial order to stay at home, the need continues at or above the previous levels and is expected to continue to remain consistent with unemployment and the forecasted peaks in the coronavirus.

With many jobs requiring human interaction and the inability to work from home, food insecurity increases. Programs like the United Way food drops and Backpack Attack, along with many other wonderful food support organizations such as the Outreach Food Shelf in Douglas County and the Hearts and Hands Food Shelf in Pope County, help to prevent hunger and alleviate the financial burden faced by families who have experienced lost wages as a result of coronavirus. In order to continue to ensure that food insecurity is reduced in our community, it is important to be informed of the many resources that are available to help people and ensure financial stability during these uncertain times.

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study can be used to predict changes in food insecurity based on projected changes to unemployment and income levels. Feeding America conducted their annual Map the Meal Gap study to improve understanding of food insecurity and food costs at the local level. The most recent release is based on data from 2018. In response to COVID-19, they also released a companion study and interactive map that illustrates the projected impact of the pandemic on local food insecurity in 2020. For more information and to access local data, go to https://map.feedingamerica.org/.

For more information about local food resources, contact United Way 211. There are many other resources in our community in addition to the food shelves that include county programs, food pantries, and community groups of caring individuals offering a helping hand to make a difference in the life of someone who is in need of assistance. It takes many community partners working together!

Every day, people struggle to buy healthy food, and secure a job that pays the bills and other essential needs. Now it is even more important that we continue to inform the community about the many resources available and encourage individuals to access them during their time of need.

As businesses are reopening and individuals are following a phased in approach with precautions taken to ensure the health and safety of both employees and the general public, these programs will continue to serve our community. When we continue to provide information and resources, we are able to reduce hunger in our community and help people to maintain financial stability. We are a community that cares for one another and we will come out of this stronger together!

Jen Jabas is the director of the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties. “In the Know” is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.