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Olmsted County commissioners find middle ground in Channel One support

The regional food bank increased its annual request for support based on increased need and reduced access to manufacturer and retail food donations.

01 Channel One Regional Food Bank
Evelyn Brickley, shopping support and stocking volunteer, grabs items to stock from the warehouse at Channel One Regional Food Bank on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo
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ROCHESTER — Olmsted County commissioners agreed to continue increased support of Channel One into the new year but stopped short of meeting the organization’s full request.

“I am really convinced there is a broader need,” County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said of the added support.

“I would also be comfortable going more, because I think there is truly a need and it really does keep people healthier, families more stable and kids ready to learn,” she added.

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Commissioners have traditionally provided Channel One Regional Food Bank $50,000 a year from the county’s property tax revenue, but the county contributed an additional $90,000 this year by tapping federal COVID-relief funds.

In June, Channel One requested a total of $240,000 in support for next year, citing increased community need and reduced food sources.

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Channel One Executive Director Virginia Merritt said the request was based on what the agency was seeing at the time, which was a month before demand peaked at a 45% increase compared to the previous year.

She said the countywide need has lessened since then but remained at a 33% increase for October when compared to 2021.

“A 33% increase in need is substantial, and we are seeing that need increase in working families, who could have been shopping at Channel One for years, but haven’t come here until the price of groceries got unaffordable.” she said.

Merritt said Channel One’s $240,000 request was based on increased costs due to food supply issues amid increased demand, but county funding is only a fraction of what’s needed to operate the food shelf.

The Channel One monthly food shelf budget was $150,000 before the county provided additional funds for the final months of the year. The updated $180,000 monthly budget has helped provide more nutritious options to people who needed to access the local food shelf, Merritt said.

“The county funding is tremendously helpful, but most of the funding is still coming from other sources, and most of that is private donations,” she said, pointing out that 40% of the public need across the region is seen in Olmsted County.

With $90,000 of the planned 2023 county contribution coming from reserves from the federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, county commissioners voiced caution about setting a precedent that county funding would continue at the higher level.

Commissioner Jim Bier said he’d prefer to keep funding at the $50,000 approved in previous years, citing reports that Channel One allegedly stopped taking donations from companies like Seneca Foods.

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“When you’ve got a food supply that will give them food, and they don’t take it, I have a hard time giving them a quarter of a million dollars,” he said.

Merritt said Channel One is accepting donations from Seneca and other manufacturers, and the conflicting report stems from a misunderstanding connected to an annual donation last year.

“We badly need those corporate donations,” she said.

While Channel One has stopped accepting food donations from community drives, she said manufacturer and grocery store donations remain crucial, but such donations have been reduced by the donors due to costs and supply issues, among other factors.

“As long as they are selling all the food they have, they don’t have leftovers for us,” she said.

The same is occurring in relation to federally supported food commodities intended to ensure farmers have a revenue stream if markets slow.

“They would rather sell it to a grocery store for more money than sell it for a reduced government price,” Merritt said.

With such pressures also driving up food prices, Deputy County Attorney Travis Gransee said the county’s Channel One contribution is more efficient than trying to provide direct funding to families served by the services he oversees.

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“What they do buy, they buy a heck of a lot cheaper than our consumers would if we just gave them cash and sent them to the grocery store,” he said of Channel One’s ability to purchase food at wholesale prices or cheaper.

Kiscaden said it also reaches more people, since some income barriers are removed.

“There are a lot of families, not necessarily the poorest of the poor, who are struggling,” she said.

Commissioners said the added funding is expected to be on a one-year basis, but left room from Channel One to return with another request if needs continue.

“We are hoping this potentially rights itself,” Commissioner Gregg Wright said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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