U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar reached out last week to northern Minnesota leaders to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of local students, and on growing hunger.

In a phone call Thursday with International Falls School Superintendent Kevin Grover and three other northern Minnesota school superintendents, she said the information she learned would help her craft legislation aimed at assisting with the new needs communities are facing because of the pandemic.

She asked the student mental health group, which included staff from Range Mental Health, to share stories and what they think the federal government should be doing moving forward. Klobuchar said a number of mental health provisions she helped craft were included in December’s COVID-19 relief package, and she expects another package soon.

“But there’s much more we can be doing,” she told the group.

And on Tuesday, Klobuchar discussed with northern Minnesota food shelf directors their efforts in addressing the hunger crisis that has happened as a result of the pandemic.

She was joined on the call with Ashley Hall, International Falls Hunger Coalition director, as well as Sue Estee, director of the Second Harvest North Central Food Bank, and three other food shelf directors.

Klobuchar has worked to increase SNAP and food bank funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while Klobuchar said the focus now must be on vaccine distribution and production, she said the pandemic is affecting student mental health and food insecurity. Both of which were already concerns prior to the pandemic, she noted.

Klobuchar pointed to job loss, isolation, illness, death and fear of becoming ill causing more and more issues, including drug and alcohol use, hunger, mental health concerns.

“And it’s all happening at the same time,” she said.

Both groups credited her “courage and determination” Jan. 6 as she exercised her duties as the top Democrat on the Rules Committee with oversight over federal elections. She described the 3 a.m. walk through the halls of the Capitol with the box of electoral votes and feeling the weight of her duties.

Following the inauguration, Klobuchar said the real work will begin in Washington D.C., and last week’s meetings are a good way to start the year. More input will be needed as the new administration begins to put its plans in place, she said.

Students

Grover told Klobuchar Falls students were in session at school more than other districts, crediting a planning group that came up with the format that calls for smaller class sizes, among other changes.

He credited the school’s staff, from paras to bus drivers, for the success. “It’s amazing what they’ve stepped up and done since last March,” he said. “They are the reason we are (in the school setting).”

He said the district’s full-time social worker at the elementary level, hired prior to the pandemic, along with a full-time counselor and social worker at the high school has worked well for the district, as it has tried to handle a rise in the need for mental health care even prior to the pandemic

The group also discussed the need to continue to improve broadband internet access in northern Minnesota, where areas still require “hot spots” for students to access their online learning programs.

In addition, the group agreed that offering free meals during the pandemic to all students has been a benefit to all.

“We are feeding anyone who wants it,” Grover said, adding that even kids whose parents have decent paying jobs may find nothing in the cupboard to eat.

He called the free meals that started because of the pandemic “a hidden plus,” wondering if it should end when the pandemic is controlled.

Hunger

Hall told Klobuchar they are hearing that people are hungry, adding that additional food distributions have been helpful.

“We do feed all of Koochiching County and that is so much bigger than International Falls,” she said, adding getting food to people in rural areas like Loman, Big Falls, Northome, Kabetogama has been a challenge and a focus.

“If we can figure a van or truck to get food out to Koochiching County, it’ll be a game changer here.”

Hall said more senior citizens than ever before are coming to the food shelf, and more people who have never needed the food shelf’s help come, often embarrassed and crying, a common theme among those on the call.

Moving the food shelf to a more central location has helped make it more available to people, Hall added, encouraging Klobuchar to continue to seek more funding to address the needs.

Estes said the fight against hunger needs to be taken head-on in northern Minnesota, and she thanks Klobuchar for her efforts.

The beginning of the pandemic brought additional food for distributions to those who needed it, she said, adding staff and volunteers put aside their own health concerns to carry out the mission.

“It was critical,” Estes said, adding thanks for Klobuchar’s efforts.

She pointed to additional SNAP benefits and other programs that make such a difference in people’s lives

Estes urged Klobuchar to express to her colleagues the difference the additional food distributions have made in people’s lives.