With fall here and winter approaching, food shelves in Scott and Carver County are preparing for what they anticipate will be a busy end of the year.
Food insecurity has heavily impacted Minnesota over the past decade, and this dilemma has worsened since the start of the pandemic.
Minnesotans made over 3.8 million visits to food shelves last year — a new record high for the state, according to 2020 statistics from Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a nonprofit organization centered on combating food insecurity in Minnesota.
Food shelves in Scott and Carver County are finding creative ways to serve the community as the holiday season nears and 2021 reaches a close.
In November, the Jordan Area Food Shelf provides turkeys, potatoes and a bag filled with other traditional Thanksgiving dinner sides. This Thanksgiving, the Jordan Area Food Shelf is also hosting its third annual Turkey Trot event, where participants run or walk a three-mile trail and raise money for the food shelf.
Next month, the food shelf will stock up on hams and other typical Christmas and winter holiday fixings for people to prepare meals.
As the weather gets colder, the food shelf also donates winter coats and blankets to its visitors in need. It also is looking into the ability to give Christmas presents to kids this year.
Tanya Velishek, executive director of Jordan Area Food Shelf, said she tries to be creative in providing to the community around the holidays.
“We do multiple different things during the holiday season … [because] it’s not just about feeding the community,” Velishek said. “It’s also giving them something to look forward to in the spirit of the holidays.”
Bountiful Basket Food Shelf in Chaska serves eastern Carver County by preparing holiday meals for families and using its mobile food programs to the fullest extent. Much of the food preparation and organizing is done by volunteers.
This year, the food shelf is working with Love INC and local churches to deliver 250 turkeys and supplemental holiday food bags to families in need. Volunteers also help out at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Chaska every year to debone turkeys ahead of the church’s annual Thanksgiving meal.
The food shelf is working with nonprofit organization Humanity Alliance this year, where volunteers prepare, cook and deliver meals to families primarily in Carver County. In this partnership, 200 additional turkeys and food bags will be prepared for families.
Bountiful Basket also partners toward the end of the year with Fare for All, a low-cost, grocery purchasing program. $15 vouchers will be provided to visitors to purchase food at Fare for All.
Providing assistance to those in need is something Bountiful Basket Board Chairman Tom Redman said can alleviate worries for families around the holidays and year-round.
“If we can provide [families] with healthy food, they can use their resources for other things, whether that be medical, transportation or housing,” Redman said. “We can take a lot of that worry away from families.”
Like Jordan Area Food Shelf and Bountiful Basket, the CAP Agency’s food shelf also puts holiday baskets together around the end of the year.
Jackie Lara, CAP Agency’s director of nutrition and community services, said the Scott County community often donates holiday-themed foods in fall and winter. The food shelf receives most of its turkey and ham donations around this time, and many people donate holiday sides like stuffing and potatoes.
“It’s through that community support, those donations and the generosity out there that really makes these things happen,” Lara said.
According to Lara, the CAP Agency sees an increase in families served beginning in September and even more heightened numbers in November and December.
This finding aligns with data compiled last year by Hunger Solutions Minnesota. The organization’s findings show an increase among food shelf visits after September, with numbers generally reaching a high for the year in the last three months.
According to Hunger Solutions Minnesota Executive Director Colleen Moriarty, food shelf numbers often rise at the end of the year as transportation becomes more difficult and access to farmers markets and personal gardens disappears.
While visitor numbers increase around this time of year, all three food shelves noted donation numbers surge as well.
Majority of food provided by the CAP Agency is either purchased or donated through local food banks, according to Lara. She said more food drives and donations happen around this time from families, schools and faith-based organizations.
“It’s the time of giving, and people want to help out and give back,” Lara said.
Redman and Velishek also see increased food and monetary donations at their respective food shelves.
Moriarty believes these acts of generosity are common in Minnesota during this time of year.
“We live in incredibly generous communities in the state of Minnesota, and people are very generous in the holidays to food shelves,” Moriarty said.
Ahead of Hunger Solutions Minnesota 2021 data release, Moriarty said this year’s overall visit numbers are getting back to pre-pandemic levels from 2019. She largely attributes this drop to the implementation of government programs and assistance over the past year, like free and reduced school meals.
While decreased visitation numbers are encouraging, Hunger Solutions Minnesota’s findings still show Minnesotans making millions of food shelf visits annually.
Moving forward, the three food shelves are prepared to continue helping Scott and Carver County residents for the rest of the year and beyond.
“In a pandemic, time of need, jobless or whatever, sometimes people just need that extra hand to get them to the next week,” Velishek said. “I find it really important to be able to help meet those needs.”
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Benedictine St. Gertrude’s in Shakopee is Minnesota’s first alternative care site, seeking to alleviate hospital capacity concerns and staff shortages caused by COVID-19.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Nov. 2 that St. Gertrude’s, a senior living community, would be accepting up to 30 patients from local hospitals who no longer need hospital-level care, but cannot yet return home.
“Our action plan is aimed at easing the burden on Minnesota hospitals, providing more capacity for Minnesotans who are sick with COVID, and ensuring all patients are receiving the care that is right for them,” Walz said in a news release. “There is more work to be done, but today is an important step.”
On Oct. 15, Walz announced the state would be sending the Minnesota National Guard and other staff to help alternative care sites address hospital backlog concerns.
As of Nov. 9, 55 of 91 reported Minnesota hospitals have reached over 95% of their ICU bed capacity. This currently leaves only 42 ICU beds available in the entire state, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.
65 of 130 reported Minnesota hospitals have reached over 95% of their non-ICU bed capacity. The department records just over 300 non-ICU beds available in Minnesota.
Since mid-July, the number of Minnesota ICU and non-ICU beds used for COVID patients has regularly increased through early November.
Thirty beds have currently been designated in two St. Gertrude’s transitional care units for treating patients arriving from hospitals. As of Nov. 10, St. Gertrude’s Administrator Megan Diamond said the facility has filled 22 beds.
So far, the facility has been working with, and receiving patient referrals from, the M Health System, Allina Health System, HealthPartners, Hennepin County Medical Center and North Memorial Health Hospital, according to Diamond.
While the center receives around 20 referrals a day, St. Gertrude’s works on a rotation with the hospital systems to ensure each system has an appropriate number of patients admitted. According to Diamond, St. Gertrude’s has to review each referral, making sure patients can have proper needs met and have insurance and Medicare plans sorted out before admittance.
The care unit is also not taking in any patients with COVID. Diamond said the team has protocols in place for any patient who tests positive while already in the St. Gertrude’s facility.
Operating as an alternative care site for just over a week, Diamond said the program’s success relies on effective, constant communication.
“It’s been a learning curve for all parties involved,” Diamond said. “Being the first site, we’ve gotten to be the guinea pigs on how this process can work, and we’ve been working every day to make it more efficient.”
According to Diamond, St. Gertrude’s regularly holds debriefing calls with the Department of Health, Minnesota National Guard, Worldwide Travel nursing agency and hospital partners to discuss what works well in the program and what could be improved moving forward.
Ahead of Nov. 2, St. Gertrude’s had a limited amount of time to prepare the facility and get everyone on the same page.
Diamond said Benedictine President and CEO Jerry Carley met with the Department of Health and Department of Human Services along with other multi-site CEOs to discuss Gov. Walz’s strategy plan.
Carley and Benedictine COO Steve Przybilla identified facilities within Benedictine that could help in this plan — leading them to St. Gertrude’s.
The living community surpassed the bed requirement and had two transitional care units in the building available for use due to staffing shortages. Diamond said she was asked to sign up St. Gertrude’s as a potential care unit option.
Days later on Oct. 27, she received a call saying the living community had been chosen.
Immediately after, St. Gertrude’s and all involved parties got to work preparing for the Nov. 2 opening. The facility held an introductory meeting with the Department of Health on Oct. 28 and a “game-planning” one with the department and Benedictine the following day.
St. Gertrude’s also held calls with the Minnesota National Guard and Worldwide Travel to plan for orientation. The orientation process was then held on Nov. 1, only a day before opening.
“It was a very quick-moving process. They wanted to start helping the hospitals relieve and open beds for potential COVID this fall season,” Diamond said.
Staffing for St. Gertrude’s has been relatively local thanks to support from the Minnesota National Guard. Diamond also believes many of Worldwide Travel’s nurses have been sourced from Minnesota.
In Gov. Walz’s Nov. 2 news release, Carley said this staffing support will make all the difference in the work St. Gertrude’s is doing.
“With the staffing support from the National Guard and the COVID-19 emergency staffing pool, Benedictine St. Gertrude’s is able to use its available capacity to serve this need,” Carley said.
St. Gertrude’s employees work with the Minnesota National Guard and Worldwide Travel nurses to ensure processes are being run safely and correctly.
Safety is also prioritized through staff testing and vaccinations. A news release from Benedictine stated that “all staff provided by the state will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and will participate in the regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing.”
Diamond said around 80% of St. Gertrude’s staff is vaccinated, with the other 20% participating in mandatory testing twice a week.
While the facility has brought in a few dozen temporary staff members for this program, Diamond said there is still a need for staffing that reflects issues the entire healthcare industry has faced since the pandemic began.
“I think we still are challenged when it comes to finding nursing staff. I think a pandemic has really changed how people operate … [and] I think we are experiencing the staffing struggle that everybody is,” Diamond said.
St. Gertrude’s Foundation and Marketing Director Yvonne Anderson said she is confident in the living community’s ability to step up in this situation and make a difference in the state of Minnesota.
“I think it’s very natural for us to be chosen because we have a long-standing relationship working within the hospital industry and caring for people as they move through their rehab and their care,” Anderson said.