“May I have four meals?” a young boy asked me as our church volunteers were finalizing the preparations for the to-go meals at Loaves & Fishes in Shakopee last month. With Thanksgiving on the horizon at the time, I knew I’d be thinking about that young man and his family. Did they have enough food?

Minnesota’s hunger statistics are easy to research and share. But when you look into the eyes of one of the 500,000 people in Minnesota affected by food insecurity, that touches your heart.

Experts define food insecurity as a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food for all household members to maintain a healthy diet. You might also be food insecure when you make choices between paying for your heating bills or rent/mortgage over having enough food to sustain an active, healthy life.

In its “Talking Through the Numbers” podcast from late 2020, the St. Paul-based Amherst H. Wilder Foundation discussed research indicating that, post-COVID, food insecure individuals had moved from one of 11 to one of eight Minnesotans.

“For Black and Hispanic/Latino Minnesotans, those rates of people experiencing food insecurity were more than double of their white counterparts,” said Maddie Hanson-Connell, a Wilder research associate.

She said that due to the historical unequal access to wealth-building policies, the current average income for white people is about $71,000, and the average income for people of color is at $48,000.

Each year, Feeding America releases the Map the Meal Gap study, and while 2021 numbers are not finalized, the study projects Scott County’s food insecurity rate to be 5.5% in 2021, up from 4.6% in 2019. Couple that with the Nov. 10 report from the U.S. government that said prices for U.S. consumers jumped 6.2% from the previous year, it’s easy to see why food insecurity continues to rise in our neighborhoods, across our state and country.

One of the misconceptions about food insecurity is that people who are food insecure don’t have employment. Minnesota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 3.7%, down 2.1 percentage points from September of 2020. Data from USDA’s Minnesota Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) indicated that in 2019 over 50% of those receiving assistance were employed and 33% are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities.

“There was only 13% of families who were receiving SNAP that did not have at least one wage earner in their family,” added Hanson-Connell, during the Wilder Foundation podcast.

The average SNAP benefit per person per meal? $1.14. Food insecurity is not foreign to me. Growing up in a family with eight siblings, we did benefit from USDA’s reduced-price school lunch program. Having weathered a significant job loss six years ago, I also made choices about where money was spent, putting priority on my home, health, an automobile and communication resources so I could build a new career. I admit, my motivation to give back comes from those lean times.

From housing to used cars, food to paper goods, as prices continue to rise, so does the number of people who are food insecure. I can’t predict the next time I will look into the eyes of another Minnesotan who is silently food insecure. More than likely, it will happen without my knowledge.

While our team does a small part at Shakopee’s Loaves & Fishes, other local opportunities abound for sharing and giving thanks this season through CAP Agency, 360 Communities, ROCK, Southern Valley Alliance and many other civic and church organizations. Even sharing a gift of one meal will make a difference in one person’s day. Happy holidays.

Jessica Lamker is a 23-year resident of Savage and a Community Voices columnist.