Lawmakers fail to keep nonprofits’ $200M COVID funding pitch
Minnesota nonprofits failed to get special COVID-19 relief from the Legislature this session, despite their appeal for $200 million in one-time pandemic relief.
The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, which led the lobbying effort, said the state’s nonprofits — which make up about 14% of Minnesota’s workforce — continue to battle the rise costs while getting less government support than the public and private sectors.
After the regular session ended last week, Governor Tim Walz did not announce a special session to wrap up legislative work. Despite the state’s projected budget surplus of nearly $9.3 billion, lack of funding for nonprofits is among the many issues left unresolved by lawmakers.
“I am extremely frustrated with the lack of COVID relief for nonprofits,” said Marie Ellis, director of public policy at the nonprofit council. “There is a real human cost to this legislative work that is not being done.”
Hunger Solutions Minnesota claimed $8 million for food shelves, food banks and meal programs and $15 million for capital investments, such as expanding food shelves. Neither proposal passed, leaving Minnesota’s more than 350 food shelves and seven food banks without additional state assistance despite inflation driving up food prices and new customers.
“It’s going to look like a [funding] cut,” said Leah Gardner, director of policy at Hunger Solutions. “It’s kind of a perfect storm. … The need is real. It can’t wait.”
More Minnesotans visited the food shelves in 2020 than any other year on record. Food aisle visitor numbers fell 5% in 2021, approaching pre-pandemic levels. But a Hunger Solutions survey found that 70% of food aisles are seeing or expecting to see an increase in visits this year when special federal COVID relief ends.
“It’s a roller coaster, and we tend to go up,” said Jason Viana, executive director of Open Door Pantry, an Eagan-based food shelf. “I anticipate that every food shelf that depends on this funding will feel the effects.”
In Burnsville, more than 500 households use Open Door’s drive-thru food distribution each week. The nonprofit serves twice as many people as it helped before the pandemic. In addition, her food costs have doubled over the past year. As pandemic-inspired generosity fades and no additional state funding is in sight, Viana is scrambling to find more donations — and plans to buy less food.
“It really feels like our legislature devalues our community,” he said. “Usually in a world of partisan bickering, meeting basic needs should be a sure thing to agree on.”
Brooklyn Center’s CAPI food shelf serves triple the number of people it served before the pandemic, including many Asian and Hispanic families. He provides culturally specific foods, but that means he has to buy more expensive items instead of relying on free foods donated by grocery stores, said Ekta Prakash, CEO of CAPI.
Nonprofits have been on the front lines providing resources to those in need throughout the pandemic and unrest after police killed George Floyd and Daunte Wright, Prakash said.
“Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in supporting the community,” she said. “You have to invest in these organizations.”
Other laws specific to nonprofits have not been passed, such as GOP-backed restrictions to strengthen oversight of nonprofits, including prohibiting newly created nonprofits from get money from the state, a measure opposed by the Council of Nonprofit Organizations.
But so did the $200 million nonprofit one-time relief fund, which would have prioritized funding for culturally specific nonprofits, social services and small nonprofits. lucrative, especially those located outside the Twin Cities. Ellis said nonprofits have been largely excluded from state and federal aid, with only about 4% of all federal Paycheck Protection Program loans going to nonprofits.
Any additional federal assistance received by the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in Minneapolis is winding down, and executive director Suzanne Fuller Burks is seeking foundation grants and other funding that could help support its growing operating costs.
“I don’t know if the Legislative Assembly really understands the impact that COVID has had on our entire organization,” she said. “We talk about people’s basic needs.”
No universal school meals
Nonprofits have also lobbied the Capitol to fund free school breakfasts and lunches for all Minnesota children, which supporters say would eliminate racial gaps, reduce research stigma assistance and guarantee all students access to food. Gardner was hopeful when Walz included more than $180 million in his budget for universal school breakfasts and lunches. But it also failed in the Legislative Assembly.
During the pandemic, federal aid paid for free school meals for all students. But that program is due to expire at the end of June, leaving more than half a million children at risk of losing access to meals, according to Hunger Solutions. Families must qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, but many families struggling to pay their paychecks narrowly miss meal qualifications, Gardner said.
“It was just a very tough legislative session to get bipartisan agreement on anything,” Gardner said. “It’s super disappointing.”