Food lines illustrate hard times in Duluth: 'We're surviving — but just barely'
Record numbers of meals are being served locally to people whose lives have been upended by the pandemic.
Roxanne Burgdorf makes her living in the gig economy — contracting to drive passengers for Uber and Lyft.
But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, she’s been forced to limit herself to mostly food deliveries. As a precaution against the spread of the virus, she and her husband, Gary, are not taking passengers.
She's no longer receiving unemployment insurance made available to gig workers for the first time during the pandemic, sending Burgdorf, of Duluth, to use a food shelf for the first time in her life.
“It helps a lot,” Burgdorf, 64, said. “Because we can take our money and use it on bills and other needs.”
The News Tribune encountered Burgdorf in the parking lot of the Second Harvest Northern Lights Food Bank near the airport earlier this week.
Once a month for the past four months, Burgdorf has been attending Second Harvest’s weekly curbside food shelf. This week, recipients were receiving frozen chicken and fish, fresh produce, a box of canned and boxed items, milk and cheese.
“It’s a scary time right now,” Burgdorf said. “We’re surviving — but just barely.”
Numbers of food shelf recipients are rising during the pandemic. And the impact isn't just seen in viral photos of long lines of automobiles outside food distribution centers in Texas.
It’s happening locally, too, where hundreds of people show up at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Duluth to receive its curbside, hot-meal service.
“My staff is exhausted,” Executive Director Susan Jordahl-Bubacz said. “But they are just such good people, they don’t complain.”
Since April, food shelves have been available to anyone in Minnesota who is within 300% of federal poverty guidelines — meaning a household of one making $3,190, or a household of four making $6,550.
“Many people who qualify for food shelf programs don’t realize that they do,” Second Harvest spokesperson Kelley Johnson said. “We’re here to cushion the grocery bill, because we know that life is really expensive.”
This time last year, Second Harvest was receiving 70-90 households weekly — now it’s 140 or more every week, with the food shelf reaching 184 carloads of people twice since March.
More seniors are going — 11% of 13,498 people served this year at Second Harvest’s food shelf compared to 9% of 10,744 last year.
Like Burgdorf, there are lots of first-timers — people leading stable lives until they were impacted by COVID-19.
At Second Harvest, 1,001 of 4,911 households served this year had never before visited.
“This is the first time they’ve needed to,” Johnson said.
Second Harvest is on pace to supply a record 6 million meals for people in need throughout Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.
“You’re seeing more of your middle-class-type people coming in here — and you can tell they’re apprehensive about taking charity,” Jack Steinbach, 66, a Second Harvest volunteer, said.
Andrew Fyten, 40, and Stephen Sandberg, 44, are Ordean East Middle School teachers in special education. They each arrived during their school day this week to load up their cars with food they would deliver to the homes of some students and their families.
“I had a student ask me if I had any food for him during a virtual meeting,” Sandberg said. “I took that as a call to action.”
Fyten explained that students in special education commonly face a number of additional barriers, including access to food and transportation. The teachers have adapted to meet a wider array of students’ needs.
“It’s just incredibly challenging for the kids in our classrooms right now,” Fyten said, explaining that the school’s special education teachers challenged themselves to revise how they create access for students.
“That’s what this is — Ordean East teachers doing it a different way,” Fyten said.
In downtown Duluth, at the Union Gospel Mission, hot meals have been a staple throughout the pandemic.
They’re feeding up to 200 people routinely, Jordahl-Bubacz said, serving suppers Monday through Thursday, lunches Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and breakfasts Wednesday.
The line to receive curbside meals in to-go containers can run a few blocks. The meals are popular for being hot and tasty — comfort foods like hot breakfast, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes, and lasagna hot dish.
“It’s a misnomer that the only people who come here are on welfare,” Jordahl-Bubacz said. “A lot of them are working people, but they don’t make a living wage, so they can’t make ends meet. Some of them are newly unemployed, or people who had cash jobs. A lot of them are truly vulnerable.”
There was the mother of two who fell to her knees and cried when she learned her family could eat for free, Jordahl-Bubacz explained; the couple in their 80s who hadn’t had anything as substantive to drink as milk or juice in months; the regular contributor to Union Gospel Mission fund drives who asked to be a recipient of the mission's generosity — $50 gift cards given out by the agency in order to be able to buy her children Christmas presents.
“I told her, ‘You don’t have to explain anything to me; you’ve already paid it forward,’” Jordahl-Bubacz said.
Ann Jorgensen, 64, volunteers at Second Harvest. She sees first-time recipients having a hard time with acceptance.
“They really should be proud of themselves, because they need it and they’re taking care of their families,” Jorgensen said.
Second Harvest, while supporting a food drive, is primarily a food bank. It supplies food for food shelves and soup kitchens at places throughout the region, including CHUM, the Salvation Army and several church-based programs.
The News Tribune asked Second Harvest and the Union Gospel Mission about how food stocks were holding up. Both explained that they have plenty of food, and they encouraged people not to think that using the food shelf would mean costing food for someone else. But they’ve had to purchase more food this year, in the face of fewer food donations. Some retail food drives have been postponed by the pandemic.
At Second Harvest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made up a third of total food distribution in 2020, compared to 10%-15% annually. Additionally, federal relief dollars have helped to bolster food stockpiles. Some items, such as cereal and produce, can be harder to get than usual, because so many agencies are vying for the same products.
The food bank is able to buy products at deep discounts from wholesalers or brokers to supplement food donations.
"It’s a more expensive way to feed our neighbors, but given the current climate it’s our only choice," Shaye Morris, Second Harvest executive director, said. "We are so appreciative of our generous donors this year."
At the Union Gospel Mission, Jordahl-Bubacz credits generous donors, too. Some new corporate donors have come through with four-figure checks; some regular donors have doubled their contributions.
The mission reuses food from grocery stores — day-old breads, and milk and produce that’s close to its off-date. Meat is the mission’s largest food expense.
With fewer volunteers due to COVID-19, the mission has had to run on the dedication of a few, including a veteran cook among four full-timers.
“We’ve been serving hot meals since day one,” Jordahl-Bubacz said. “These people need a full, balanced meal."
The other day, Jordahl-Bubacz received word that a $25,000 grant had come through. The news made her sit back at her desk and cry.
“It was just the sheer relief,” she said.
South St. Louis County food shelves
- CHUM, 120 N. First Ave. W., Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-noon
- Chum-West, 4831 Grand Ave., Mondays, 10 a.m.-noon
- Duluth Salvation Army, 215 S. 27th Ave. W., Mondays and Thursdays, 1:30-4 p.m.
- Water's Edge Community Church, 2202 W. Third St., second Thursdays, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
- Second Harvest, 4503 Airpark Blvd., Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
- Vineyard Christian Fellowship Fruit of the Vine, 1533 Arrowhead Road, Tuesdays, 6-8 p.m.; Saturdays, 9:30-11:30 a.m.; fourth Fridays, 9:30-10:30 a.m.
- Proctor Food Shelf, 100 Pionk Drive, Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Floodwood Food Shelf, 601 Ash St., second and fourth Wednesdays, 9-11 a.m.
- Duluth Salvation Army, 215 S. 27th Ave. W., lunch Mondays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
- Life House, 102 W. First St., lunches Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; dinners Mondays-Fridays, 3-6 p.m.
- Water's Edge Community Church, 2202 W. Third St., lunch first, third, fourth, fifth Saturdays, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Damiano Center, 206 W. Fourth St., breakfast daily, 8:30-9:30 a.m.; lunch Wednesdays, Fridays-Mondays, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; dinner Saturdays-Sundays, 5-6 p.m.
- CHUM, 125 N. First Ave. W., Wednesdays, 3-6 p.m.
Union Gospel Mission hot meals: breakfasts, Wednesday, 8:30-9 a.m.; lunches, Tuesday-Thursday-Friday, noon-12:30 p.m.; dinners, Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, 4:15-5 p.m.
For help with food assistance
- Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps): St. Louis County, 218-726-2000, or Community Action Duluth, 218-726-1665
- Minnesota Food Helpline: 888-711-1151
- United Way 2-1-1: confidential connection to important food information
- Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors: 218-727-5653 ext. 112
This story was updated at 10 a.m., Dec. 30 to include Union Gospel Mission's hot meals schedule; it was originally posted at 8 a.m., Dec. 25.