A normally bustling warehouse in Roseville is now half empty most days.
A spike in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota amid the fast-spreading omicron variant is deterring volunteers who would normally fill shifts assembling bags of canned fruit, rice, crackers and other items to give to children in 550 schools, libraries and community sites.
Half of the nonprofit Every Meal’s volunteer teams are open this month and February, forcing the organization last week to reduce the amount of food distributed for the first time. It comes as some schools return to virtual learning because of COVID, leaving some children without easy access to free food.
“It was obviously disappointing,” said Rob Williams, president of Every Meal, formerly Sheridan Story. “We are sort of the role of the safety net to support the children.”
At the start of each year, many nonprofits see a drop in volunteering after people rush to give back ahead of the holidays. But this year – just like last year – that annual problem is exacerbated by concerns over coronavirus cases.
The normal lull in volunteering in January isn’t lifting at Second Harvest Heartland, the largest of Minnesota’s seven food banks, which has recently seen a spike in volunteer cancellations and has many empty shifts in February. Businesses and faith groups are not returning due to omicron issues, said Julie Greene, who oversees volunteer services. Instead of having volunteers pack potatoes or other items, the Brooklyn Park-based organization is increasing the amount of prepackaged food it purchases, driving up costs.
In St. Paul, the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center relied on 100 volunteers a month before the pandemic, but that number dropped to 25 to 50 volunteers during the pandemic. Now, the nonprofit receives about 10 regular helpers.
“That’s a volunteer record,” said Jonathan Palmer, executive director of Hallie Q. Brown, where he and his 22 employees all help run the drive-thru food distribution. “The need is too great to reduce. We pull ourselves together and engage. That means extra work for us.”
Nearby, Keystone Community Services is considering completely closing one of its two food shelves due to a 30% drop in volunteers on top of a sudden staff shortage; five employees are out of work this week due to breakthrough COVID cases or awaiting COVID test results.
“It’s always our last straw for us. We’re doing everything we can,” CEO Mary McKeown said of the closure of one of the food shelves. “We are all tired of rotating, changing and sorting.”
Tracy Nielsen, who runs St. Paul-based HandsOn Twin Cities, which connects volunteers with organizations, said many local nonprofits rely on a small group of volunteers throughout the pandemic who are now more and more tired. Organizations saw a surge in interest in volunteering when the pandemic first hit, then another influx of generosity after the murder of George Floyd sparked unrest. But now it is difficult for organizations to fill vacancies.
“It’s a constant struggle right now,” Nielsen said. “We just encourage people to act however they can.”
A growing need
A new Gallup poll has found that more Americans are giving money to charities than in 2020, but fewer people are volunteering.
Throughout the pandemic, nonprofits in Minnesota have pivoted to address volunteer shortages, especially as COVID-19 concerns sidelined seniors more susceptible to complications. of the coronavirus. Some organizations were able to move events to projects that volunteers could do safely at home, whether it was filling backpacks or doing online mentoring.
But like many food shelves, Williams and his 35 colleagues can’t do the job alone and he can’t afford to hire more staff, he said. Volunteers prepare approximately 40,000 culturally specific meals each week which Every Meal distributes to families in the Twin Cities, Mora and Cambridge.
As the pandemic drags on, the need for help has not diminished. Minnesota’s 350 food shelves were on course to end 2021 with 3.7 million visits, just below the 2020 record of 3.8 million, and more Minnesotans relied on food stamps last year than compared to the previous year. Now, Williams said the number of Minnesotans seeking food assistance is increasing, especially after the expanded federal child tax credit ends.
“There’s a long recovery to be had and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
Before COVID, Every Meal attracted 170 volunteers per shift. Now only around 20 people show up for a shift – compared to the 45 people needed for each event to allow for social distancing. (Masks are also required.) So on Monday, instead of closing as usual for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Williams will work, leading an additional volunteer shift. He’s adding more evening and weekend shifts to expand options for volunteers and even buying radio ads for the first time to appeal for help.
The shortage of volunteers is adding pressure on nonprofits already reeling from staff shortages and food supply chain disruptions.
“It’s been two long years. We’ve been burning both ends of the candle for a long time,” Williams said. “If everyone took action…our community would be a much better and stronger place.”